Pulled Punch

Adam Langer
The Thieves of Manhattan
(Spiegal & Grau, 2010)

For any frustrated writer, the premise of Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan is alluring, as the satirical story is a strong jab at the current state of the publishing industry. Langer’s book begins with a parody of the current memoir craze, with the hip-hopping Blade Markham’s ex-prisoner memoir being the biggest thing in the literary world, though his prose is unbearably un-literate (“There’s worse things than playin’ catcher upriver in Rikers, yo.”). The protagonist is a struggling writer named Ian Minot who makes a living serving coffee on the Upper West Side, and writes small stories about small people. Ian’s girlfriend Anya, a Romanian orphan, is also a fiction writer whose sob stories are catapulting her into literary stardom. We have the stage set for a condemnation of today’s shallow market where writers lie in their memoirs and tell the truth in their fiction; a chapter of the novel is titled “A Million Little Pieces” and in the “About the Author” section, Langer calls this novel a second memoir.

Langer’s language is ultimately smooth and tight, as well as innovative. It is clear that Langer loves literature and partly wrote Thieves as an ode to his favorite authors. There is an index of coined terms that Langer uses throughout the book, calling a bed a proust, an unruly beard a ginsberg, and stylish eyeglasses, franzens. Most of the clever references are to Fitzgerald and Capote. Many of them work: “Fantasizing about kerouacking my way across America.” Many are forced: “He caught a highsmith, instead of a train.” Langer also indulges in his admiration of film noir and detective fiction by introducing the character Jed Roth, an ex-editor who is angry with the publishing world for the same reasons as Ian Minot; namely, the success of frauds and his own failure to publish a novel.

The Thieves of Manhattan is divided into three parts: Fact, Fiction, and Memoir. This division insinuates the idea that memoir is a blend of both fact and fiction. Blurring the lines between the three genres seems to be Langer’s main purpose. The “factual” part of the story is certainly believable. Ian is sympathetic, especially when his girlfriend leaves him once she becomes successful. Sure, her Eastern European accent seems exaggerated, requiring condescending italics to work (“When I was leetle, eff’ryone who shoult heff luffed me left me”), but it is admissible. Even during part two, when Roth and Minot work together to re-write Roth’s novel and pass it off as Ian’s memoir, the “fiction” rings true. In part three, however, when the novel turns into a pseudo meta-fictional heist story, it is hard to believe a single sequence of the fast-paced plot. Coincidences are what make the magic of literature, but the degree to which Langer expects us to suspend our disbelief during the third part of his novel is almost unforgivable.

Despite the incredibility and sappiness of part three, Langer has commendably addressed the oozing symptoms of a struggling industry. Besides, he’s having fun, and having fun with a story is always forgivable. But more importantly, after I finished the book and thought about it, I began to suspect that Langer turns Thieves into a ridiculous story on purpose. By degrading his serious book of literature into a pulp novel, I can see that Langer aimed to make an even more subtle mockery of the literary industry, this time by making fun of himself.

The fact that over half of all Americans only read one book a year is a scary statistic for any writer, agent, editor, or publisher. For anyone who loves the smell and feel of a book, the notion that due to Kindles and iPads books as we know them might eventually be a relic for fanatics is a tragic thought. When writers of important, serious literature sell 5,000 books while ghost-written celebrity memoirs and vampire stories sell in the millions, it is a clear sign of the degenerated intellectual state of educated Americans. It is these issues which Adam Langer’s Thieves of Manhattan brings to the table. Though Langer never throws the knockout punch we want him to, the opening jabs are enough.

What can we do about the slow death of publishing?

Langer offers a shrug; keep reading, keep writing.

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Randy Rosenthal