A refreshing amusement about one Mike Smith, who impersonates a literary friend and ends up teaching creative writing at an insane asylum.
Nicholson’s is an engagingly fluent voice, by turns funny and smart, yet sometimes also distant from events, offering detached commentary when a direct grappling might satisfy. This time, in his 14th outing, things open promisingly as Mike Smith attends an ironic “book burning” party at the home of Dr. John Bentley, an Oxford don. Just after Smith submits Bentley’s volume of criticism to the flames, his friend Gregory Collins tosses the manuscript of his own first novel into the ashes. Smith, gifted with striking good looks, is contacted considerably later (the two friends parted ways after graduating) by Collins, who has a proposal: Smith will pose for the jacket photograph of Collins’s new novel and, in exchange, will get a break from his humdrum job selling pricey used books. Smith—now Collins in the world’s eyes—agrees, and, after a public reading, is invited to become writer-in-residence at the Kincaid Clinic, an all-purpose insane asylum presided over by Dr. James Kincaid. Here, he learns the “Kincaid Method,” a form of therapy designed to rid patients of the images rustling in their imaginations. One can quickly see the problems this might pose for creative writing. Yet the students’ writing is both voluminous and startlingly good—good enough to be published as an anthology edited by the original novelist, Gregory Collins. The volume is reviewed widely and well—until a review is submitted to a journal declaring the entire enterprise a fraud. Soon, the very authorship of the writings, as well as the authenticity of the editing, become dubious, and Nicholson’s tale concludes as the whole madhouse goes up in flames.
Nicholson (Female Ruins, 2000, etc.), smart and mercilessly funny when skewering the myopic anxieties of the literary world and those aspiring to join it, is less entertaining—because less persuasive—when retailing the antics and atmosphere of the Clinic.