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Book Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist

How I Became a Famous Novelist
By Steve Hely
Black Cat, 2009

Being who I am and doing what I do, I could hardly be blamed for sitting up a little straighter at one certain point in Steve Hely’s feverishly hilarious novel How I Became a Famous Novelist:

Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by the awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.

And he’s not done!

Even when being “kindly,” book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. “We look forward to hearing more from the author,” a book reviewer might say. The prissy tone sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more.

Writing a screed against book reviewers in the middle of your book seems about as clear an example of ‘asking for trouble’ as waving a red flag at a bull, or talking about fiscal responsibility at a Democratic National Convention, but Hely doesn’t need to worry: his fast-paced, deft, and very funny debut novel is virtually bile-proof.

The story here involves hack ‘content provider’ Peter Tarslaw, who learns his old college girlfriend is getting married (and daring to be happy without him) and decides to become a best-selling novelist so he can rub her face in his success when he attends her wedding. This doesn’t give him much time, but Pete has surveyed the sorry state of best-sellerdom, and he’s convinced he won’t need much time. Breaking into a book-list filled with the latest clichéd and bromide-filled epics like Sageknights of Darkhorn (Astrid Soulblighter attempts to reclaim the throne from the wicked Scarkrig clan. The fifteenth volume of the “Bloodrealms” series), Mindstretch (Trang Martinez suspects her Pilates instructor may also be a vicious serial killer), and Kindness to Birds (On a journey across the Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life) shouldn’t take much work. What you need to realize, Pete’s convinced, is that all great literature is built on bilking a gullible reading public:

It went on back to Homer, who’d written stories so ridiculous, so full of special effects and monsters and busty, half-divine sluts that Hollywood would be ashamed to make them. And he’d pulled it off! He’d punched it up with rosy-fingered dawn and the sickeningly cloying scene of Priam begging for his son’s body. That blind old trickster probably got more chicks (or dudes?) than Pericles.

In page after page and scene after scene of searing, spot-on satire, Hely merrily eviscerates the book-publishing industry, heaps ordure on a vast array of very thinly-disguised popular-lit figures, and eventually gets our hero both to the bestseller list and to that old girlfriend’s wedding. And just when you think the book is too snarky to do more than make you laugh (you’ll laugh out loud several times while reading How I Became a Famous Novelist), a nicely-done sentimental twist at the end slips past your defenses.

In short: We look forward to hearing more from the author.

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