Misadventures follow when a man who believes he has been mistaken for a famous novelist still accepts an invitation to attend a college’s annual writers’ conference.
There is a Shriver who lives with a cat named Mr. Bojangles in a doorman building he rarely leaves and who has a “hazy” sense of the past 20 years. Then there is a Shriver whose first and only novel won numerous prizes and who has vanished from public life for 20 years. Belden (The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba, 2014, etc.) sustains some suspense by leaving open the question of whether these namesake twains will ever meet and runs alongside that thread another about an unlikely love story. Such charms fray, though, amid repetition and forced humor. Time and again Shriver misses Mr. Bojangles, gets bitten by the town’s nasty mosquitoes, imbibes whiskey, and resolves to flee home from the awkwardness into which he has thrust himself. For he is implausibly slow to realize that an author at a writers’ conference will need to deal with a lot of bookish talk. He muddles through because everyone takes his muddling as part of his mysteriousness. He gets little help from the caricatures that are his fellow conferees, who have silly names like Lena Brazir (for a “busty redhead”), Cheadam (for a literary agent), and T. Watzczesnam ("pronounced 'Whatsisname' "). The plot briefly takes interesting turns—when the angry lesbian poet disappears and when another man claiming to be Shriver shows up—before winding down to its unsurprising resolution.
Good writers from Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell to Jane Smiley and David Lodge have written fine sendups of academia, and while Belden makes no bid to join that pantheon with his slight effort, he does supply a welcome reminder of the genre’s more rewarding practitioners.