The literary racket proves fair game for a con man in Magnuson’s eighth novel, a poorly designed caper.
It’s 1997. Frankie has spent most of the decade in the slammer. Now, the middle-aged grifter is back in his hometown, New York, reunited with Barry, his partner in crime. They have just scammed a guy, realizing too late he’s the idiot son of a mob boss. Barry is killed by a goon; Frankie escapes, barely, taking the first flight out of town. He finds himself in Austin, Texas, being greeted by three adoring young women. Apparently, he’s a dead ringer for V.S. Mohle, the Salinger-esque novelist the girls were expecting. They’re students at the Fiction Institute, funded by Rex Schoeninger, the Michener-esque octogenarian known for his doorstop books and philanthropy. Years before, Rex beat out V.S. for a Pulitzer. Later, on The Dick Cavett Show, the two came to blows. (This is a cartoonish rehash of the celebrated 1970s faceoff between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.) Rex filed a lawsuit; V.S. moved to a Maine island and never wrote again. Now Rex, hoping to bury the hatchet, has invited V.S. to lead a writing workshop: easy work, big bucks, but V.S. got cold feet before his flight, which leaves Frankie in the spotlight. The con man decides to go for impersonation. The students are pussycats, and the program director is gullible. (There’s some self-mockery here. Magnuson, who knew Michener, holds a similar position in Austin.) Despite some "oops!" moments, Frankie muddles through and wins over the curmudgeonly Rex by giving him a puppy. Frankie is a bit of a softie. This will disappoint readers looking for more hard-edged action, while those expecting literary scuttlebutt will find a campus scene that’s altogether too mellow. Only toward the end does the action resume, with Frankie, self-described poor schlub that he is, making mistake after mistake.
A novel that aims to appeal to two different readerships but is unlikely to satisfy either one.