In Davis’ (Zen and Sex, 2013, etc.) satire, a down-on-his-luck novelist accidentally spawns a self-help empire.
When Daniel Waterstone wins his college’s literary award, he gives a speech bemoaning the decline of Western literature and vowing to defend the classics. Ten years later, in Los Angeles, he’s at the wheel of both a car on its last legs and a stalled literary career. When his agent can’t sell his latest work, Daniel abandons the nonfunctioning car and debates abandoning his Great American Novel for something that will sell—perhaps vampires? After he encounters a successful self-help author, he decides to try humor: He’ll write a satire of self-help books, complete with ridiculous exercises and an exclamation point in the title. But when Daniel sends it out, he fails to mention that it’s satire; soon, he finds himself at the center of a self-help empire, complete with fan letters, seminars and the promise of a second book. Can his book actually change the world, or is Daniel in danger of believing his own hype and tripe? Davis’ book has some promising satirical moments, as when Daniel tells an adoring crowd the literal truth—“I’m a fraud”—and they take it as symbolic. Yet much of the satire is broad, without the acidic observations of the great satirists to whom Daniel compares himself. Much of the novel focuses on a morality play: Will Daniel sell out or not? The characters, however, are a little too thin to be engaging; it almost seems as if more attention is paid to Daniel’s decrepit Toyota Celica than to him. Furthermore, the little readers learn about Daniel’s history comes in a clump of exposition that doesn’t clarify who he is. When he’s at the end of his rope, readers may be tempted to sympathize, but there’s not much in his character to keep his plight appealing. Ultimately, Davis’ book doesn’t deliver on the laughs of satire or the moral dilemma of a character study.
A decently set up satire that never quite pays off.