Thursday, July 8, 2010

Getting Ready for an Adam Langer Novel Makes me Want to do Some Practice Laps

When Adam Langer’s Crossing California came out, I knew it wouldn’t be all kittens and cupcakes. For one thing, it was a comedy, for another, it had a lot of Jewish cultural references, and as a third strike, it was very Chicago-ish. And none of these restrictions seemed to hurt Saul Bellow, though it’s not like I’m selling him hand over fist in the bookstore*. (Note: both Crossing California and Washington Story are out of print--the link goes to my email, where we can discuss this further).

I loved, loved, loved the book, a story that totally captured the angst of high school, and at the same time, had fascinating things to say about the human nature in general, and 70s teenagers and their parents, in particular. Alas, the book is currently out of print.

After hosting a modest event for the paperback in one of the Schwartz bookshops, I mentioned in passing that had the book been set in New York, it would have landed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Eventually Langer released just that, a wonderful novel called Ellington Boulevard. Not only did it not receive the coveted front-page spot (ok, maybe I’m not too good at predicting that, as I have to account for short-discount books from Oxford in the mix), it was rather quietly received and just as hard for me to sell.

In between, Langer wrote Washington Story, a college-novel that was a sequel of sorts to Crossing California. I am not much for sequels, so in that case, I could account for my discomfort with selling the novel. How could I recommend it, when everyone, to my thinking, would have to read Crossing California first? Had I had my way, Langer would have started with fresh characters, as there is much genius in the story, and the strongest character was just a bit player in the first novel anyway.

I always think of Langer as an author much the way the old spinning plate guy on the Bozo show in the 1960s and 70s. If you don’t remember, there would be these poles, and our hero would start spinning plates on all of them, with one always seemingly about to crash. In that way, Langer juggles his many storylines, with me on the edge of my seat, wondering if he can pull it off.

I sat out Langer’s recent memoir, My Father’s Bonus March, but I am back in the game, making a pitch for his new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan. Spiegel and Grau are publishing it as a paperback original, which means, this better work! It sometimes does—look at Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Now all Langer has to do is become a citizen of the ex-British Empire and win the Man Booker.

I can only imagine Langer on the sidelines, getting advice from his coach:

“Langer, you’ve got to go bigger. Go for the gut!”

“But Bubba, I’m already reaching for the fences. Daniel Goldin in Milwaukee called me “The Towering Inferno” of writers.” (It’s a lie. I never said such a thing.)

“No, you need to go higher concept. Booksellers , reviewers, bloggers, and folks posting things on social networking sites need to describe your book in one sentence. Here’s some Rabbit-ade. Drink up.”

“Ugh, what is this?”

“Sorry, kid, branded sports drinks aren’t in your budget anymore.”

Tomorrow: I try to pitch The Thieves of Manhattan in one sentence. Or at least a paragraph. Or within the boundaries of a blog post. Good luck to all of us.
*Maybe I'd do a better job with Bellow, one of the literary highlights of the 20th century, if I'd just read him. But what should I start with?

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