Famous Writers I Have Known by James Magnuson, W.W. Norton & Company, 336 pages
Is fiction writing a sort of con job, the work of men or women who gain readers’ trust by putting on the hustle? And are those big university writing programs, taught by famous authors, scams as well? James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known suggests just that. In this clever and entertaining novel, Magnuson’s ninth, an actual con man with no literary background assumes the person of a famous but reclusive writer who bails out at the last minute from his residency at the Texas Institute of Fiction. Frankie Abandonato, a small-time New York City grifter, scams the wrong people. After his partner is murdered, he grabs the first flight out of town. In the line departing for Austin, he sees a man to whom he bears a remarkable resemblance suddenly flee when a woman approaches him with a book. Upon landing, he’s highjacked by three young students who believe him to be author V.S. Mohle, a writer whose Salinger-like novel, Eat Your Wheaties, inspired a generation of readers to be themselves. Frankie, practiced at presenting himself as someone he isn’t, takes on both Mohle’s identity and his assignment at the institute when he realizes there’s a sizable paycheck involved as well as a ready-made identity swap that can keep him safe from the mob. He’s facilitated by the erasing of the real Mohle’s last-minute cancellation message. In short order, he gains the confidence of the students, the institute’s director, and Mohle’s old rival as well.