If there's but one unadulterated truth in Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist it might be this: "Wyoming and Montana give a writer a lot of seriousness points. Nobody's gonna call you out when you start throwing around place-names like Bitterroot and Teton and Laramie. The point is to prove that your prose is as natural as a bushel of organic tomatoes or a cut of steak from a free-range longhorn."
Montana writers do get a lot of seriousness points. No question. I am, however, a little uncomfortable equating any Montanan's writing to organic tomatoes (and let's just leave the longhorn to roam free). Nevertheless, the observation is exactly the kind of pithy truism that is the hallmark of Hely's hilarious, if not disturbingly apposite parody of the book trade.
Hely's protagonist is Pete Tarslaw, a 20-something ne'er-do-well who writes college essays for an organization called EssayAides. When Tarslaw learns his ex-girlfriend, Polly, is getting married, he decides to become a famous novelist. If he can attend Polly's wedding as an esteemed man of letters, he'll successfully humiliate her, not to mention reap other benefits: "If you could write a book and act like you meant it, the reward was country estates and supple college girls."
With that, Tarslaw sets off to write his great American novel. Instead of studying craft within the confines of a top 10 MFA program, Tarslaw studies the art of what sells by poring over the best sellers list in the New York Times Book Review. He studies bestselling titles like Cracked Like Teeth ("A memoir of petty crime, drunken brawls, and recovery by a writer who was addicted to paint thinner by age nine.") and A Whiff of Gingham and Pecorino ("On a hilltop villa in Sicily, an American divorcee finds new love with a local cheese maker involved in a blood feud."). It's tempting to say that Hely, a former writer for David Letterman, exaggerates with these mock titles, but I'd bet the front tables at Barnes & Noble would prove otherwise.
The novel Tarslaw writes, The Tornado Ashes Club, is based on his own winning formula for writing a bestselling novel (including such maxims as: "Write a popular book. Do not waste energy making it a good book"; "Evoke confusing sadness at the end"; "Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness."). Not surprisingly, the novel—truly awful—does indeed become a bestseller, taking Tarslaw all over the country to book fairs and readings. One stop is in Montana, where he gives a reading at one of the "nation's premier writing programs." This one happens to be in Billings: "Those folks in Billings," admits Tarslaw, "were trying to write earnest fiction about crows and almonds. If they were willing to try, I was willing to cash their modest honorarium."
Tarlsaw's ambition, in large part, was inspired by the work of Preston Brooks, a lesser Jim Harrison-type who says things like: "Words. Words alone can mend the heart." For Tarslaw, Preston Brooks stands as the epitome of literary savoir-faire, acting the part of the folksy writer to perfection by piling on writerly platitudes for an audience of pretty girls and middle-aged women in book clubs. In a TV interview, Tarslaw references Brooks' influence on him ("It's easy enough to come up with that kind of crap") and in so doing, Tarslaw not only takes on the revered Brooks himself—who will later oust him in a duel of words—but also the entire literary establishment. So offended are the literary elite by Tarslaw's undermining pronouncements that at one point he's told he might have to appear on Oprah:
"You might have to apologize to Oprah," says Tarslaw's editor.
"What I'd do to her?" asks Tarslaw.
"She's just—that's who you apologize to."
Predictably enough, Tarslaw's hijinks turn him into a literary bad boy in a James Frey-meets-Kanye West sort of way, catapulting his novel to even higher sales on Amazon. Despite this, Preston Brooks has wormed his way into Tarslaw's psyche: Just maybe Brooks is the honest one after all?
Of course, the only real way to figure that one out is to write a memoir—presumably what we're reading here. As one English-professor-turned-free-market critic tells Tarslaw at the novel's end: "What you should do now, of course...is write a memoir. Far and away the most popular genre of our time. Nothing compares. The novel's in the ash heap."
It would be remiss to ignore the fact that How I Became a Famous Novelist is chock-full of thinly veiled conceits, most notably the inciting incident of the ex-girlfriend's engagement, not to mention Tarslaw's clumsily rendered change of heart. Parodies, however, rely on conceits. The larger point remains that Hely's novel, beyond being hysterically funny, brazenly demystifies the business of writing. We may not like the cynicism inherent to it, but we can't wholly deny its truth either. In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera wrote, "Every novelist's work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is." In no small way, Hely's novel contains just such an idea.