Blackwell’s third novel (The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, 2007, etc.) is a fizzy contemporary-Manhattan retelling of New Grub Street, George Gissing’s 1891 jeremiad about the London literary marketplace.
The main characters—writers all, at various stages of career and possessing varying ambitions—are Jackson Miller, a sly, handsome Machiavellian type; smart but stolid Eddie Renfros, who despite critical laurels for his first book can find no publisher for his second; his wife, shrewd and lovely Amanda, herself a talented writer and one with an opportunistic streak; the ascetic experimentalist Henry Baffler, who wears his devotion to pure art like an ermine cape, and meanwhile lives in filth; Margot Yarborough, likable daughter of a dissolute literary lion. They are beset by grandiose fantasies of fame, vexed by jealousy of peers, nagged by integrities the publishing world has little use for. Literary New York is a pit of vipers (drunken vipers, mostly). We watch as the characters’ naïveté and misty-eyed hopes are battered out of them. Gissing’s novel is the jumping-off place, but Blackwell disdains her model’s preachy earnestness (in this book, “Grub” becomes a downtown eatery the writers frequent) and augments her predecessor’s indictment of the marketplace with light satire and frothy romance; the book reads as a soap opera, even at times a roman à clef.
Gossipy, with insider elements that may limit its audience to aspiring writers—but a quick-paced, amusing novel.