First-novelist Carter hits the scene with a madly inventive mock bio.
Alton Reece, our narrator, is a rogue biographer. We sense this early, and eerily, in his quirky life of Howard Hughes. The glamorous Reece uses his Acknowledgements to snipe at Knopf, hint at an affair with a research assistant, and shrug off a flap involving the Hughes Archive (“Neither my assistants nor I did anything wrong and that’s all there is to say”). He then vows in the Introduction to prove that Hughes, notwithstanding his tragically eccentric last years, “was still a great man.” If the ensuing chapters prove anything, it’s that Hughes was also a great aviator and adulterer. Oh, the feats! Part of the joke, of course, is that Carter, no less than Reece, exploits Hughes’s bizarre life in order to snare readers. And it’s enormously effective. Hughes pursues and punishes his women with equal folly—landing a plane on the fairway to picnic with a golfing Kate Hepburn, rigging a Mercedes to fall apart beneath a departing Ava Gardner. How much of this is true? The fun is in the guessing. Much of it, to be sure, is sham. Reece relies on fishy diaries, letters, and memos (drivers receive minute instructions from Hughes on how to transport his contracted actresses without jarring their breasts). A Quotations chapter has everyone from Cary Grant to Richard Nixon weighing in on Hughes. But the true power of this tale lurks within transcripts of the research interviews. Conducted by Reece, these interviews hold subtle clues to his worsening mental state; through them, we glimpse a writer hell-bent on hagiography, rash to identify with his subject (he sees in Hughes a fellow traveler on the sea of bad press). Carter’s originality and, above all, deceptive moderation bring to mind Nathanael West’s coolly surreal satires of American obsession.
A darkly diverting, slightly cautionary tale about a barmy billionaire and his batty biographer.