Correspondence classes might not make you a great author, but they can sure tell you a lot about your teacher’s neuroses.
Wendell Newton, the name of his school notwithstanding, is not a famous writer: He wrote press releases in the Air Force, worked at an agricultural trade magazine and has one self-published novel under his belt. But he’s intelligent (and pompous) enough to take that résumé and coronate himself a writing expert, and he gets a steady stream of business through writers’ magazines. Carter (I Was Howard Hughes, 2003, etc.) concentrates on the relationships of three pupils: Rio, a torch singer and former grad student with whom Wendell tries to fire up a flirtation; Dan, who’s written a rambling but engaging Jim Thompson–esque trouble-out-in-the-sticks novel; and Linda, who has no real talent to speak of but (as it slowly becomes clear) has it in for Wendell, her ex. Making intentionally mediocre-to-bad writing into an engaging novel is a tough trick, but Carter pulls off its early portions by rendering Wendell a sublimely entertaining fool: He condescends to Dan by telling him his story ought to be sleazed up and submitted to porn magazines, and he enthusiastically embraces Rio’s early efforts by suggesting she publish in Upward Spiral—the literary magazine Wendell publishes. As for Linda, Wendell’s increasingly terrified by her letters about snooping inside his house and reading his diaries (which detail his infatuation with Rio and his plans to hijack Dan’s novel for his own purposes). Wendell eventually emerges as a layered, even sympathetic, character, but an epistolary novel requiring four characters is a complicated scheme for a story that has a fairly simple lesson about literary pretentiousness. And ultimately, it’s hobbled by Dan’s novel-in-progress, which takes up nearly half the book.
A smartly conceived send-up of writerly ambition, imperfectly executed.