For reasons unfathomable, I spent an entire early July day reminiscing about JT Leroy. I have not the slightest idea what got me thinking about this particular literary scandal, but suddenly I was googling “JT Leroy,” following the chain of links bound by pop-culture-blip-stream-of-consciousness. Looking through the online documentation of the whole sordid saga, I was struck by how fascinating it all seemed in early 2006, and how irrelevant it all seems now. When is the last time you’ve heard of Laura Albert, unmasked amid much fanfare as the puppeteer pulling the strings, not just of her literary creation, but, masterfully and profitably, of the literary world, if only for a brief, bright moment? Well, actually, here is Laura Albert blurbing most enthusiastically (and alliteratively) Adam Langer’s new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan: “This is bold, brave, worrying work from a wonderful wunderkind!” (But is she being sincere? Perhaps it is time for an exposé on the veracity of “advance praise.”) Her laudatory presence on the back-cover brings up a rather obvious question: can it really be such a good idea to have Laura Albert, “aka JT Leroy,” literary hoaxster and noted truth-stretcher, vouch for her enjoyment of your work? Does her name inspire much confidence in readers looking for reading recommendations?
To be fair, the subject of The Thieves of Manhattan is the very sort of publishing hijinks that fleetingly made JT Leroy so very (in)famous. The intricate scheme of Langer’s novel also revolves around a memoir of the “I-fake-it-so-real-I-am-beyond-fake” sort, this one the brainchild of Jed Roth, a disillusioned former editor at a high-powered but unfortunately low-brow publishing agency and erstwhile author of the unpublished novel, A Thief in Manhattan. That tome details the highly improbable, somewhat convoluted adventures of “Jed Roth,” which—summarized and simplified—run a little something like this: Roth, who spends his days writing at the Blom Library, home to priceless manuscripts, learns that the rude assistant he dubs the “Hooligan Librarian” regularly steals the library’s treasured holdings and fences them with Iola Jaffe, a foul-mouthed manuscript appraiser. When he notices a beautiful girl admiring the library’s prized possession, The Tale of Genji, Roth impulsively decides to steal the book for her. Having earlier followed the Hooligan Librarian, named Norbert Piels, to Iola Jaffe’s offices, Roth attempts to ascertain the manuscript’s value, only to have the appraiser pull a gun on him. Roth escapes, the Hooligan Librarian in hot pursuit. Successfully evading his pursuer, Roth discovers the next day that the Blom Library has been destroyed by a fire. Eventually, after a final, fatal confrontation with Norbert and Iola, Roth buries The Tale of Genji in desolate field and reunites with the Girl in the Library.
A Thief in Manhattan is, Roth is told, unpublishable. Unless, that is, all of it is true. (Hey, remember James Frey? No, no, there are no blurbs from That Guy Oprah Hates, but the back story Roth sets up is remarkably like Frey’s, who, in one version of his reasons for Lying to Oprah, felt compelled to recast his novel A Million Little Pieces into a memoir in order to stir up publisher interest in the work.) Discouraged, Roth goes to work as an editor at JMJ Publishers, where his dedication and hard work are rewarded by a boss who betrays him by deciding to publish the memoir of one Blade Markham, a semi-literate, gangster-cliché-spewing hustler; Roth, convinced that Blade by Blade is nothing more than a false record of patent fauxperience, quits. He also hatches a plan to wreak vengeance and finally see A Thief in Manhattan in print.
Roth’s plan relies on the involvement of our narrator, Ian Minot, a small-town writer of small stories working as a barista at a Morningside Heights coffee shop. Ian’s sense of failure, his consternation at the myriad publishers’ rejection letters filling his mailbox, are compounded by his utter disbelief at omnipresent reminders of the success of Blade by Blade, and the growing notice his Romanian girlfriend Anya is getting for her stories of orphanhood and destitution on the streets of Bucharest. When Anya, high on her newly-minted contract for We Never Talked About Ceau?escu, leaves Ian for Blade Markham, he becomes the perfect candidate to enact Jed Roth’s strategy: present A Thief in Manhattan as his own memoir, wait for it to become a huge sensation, reveal it as a deception. Roth expects to have his revenge on the publishing world that has failed to recognize and prize his talents, while Ian comes to believe that the notoriety he is sure to attract will enable him to publish (and sell, sell, sell) his own short-story collection, Myself When I Am Real (yes, that is really what it is called).
There is more, of course. There are revelations. And surprises, some of which are actually surprising. There is a love story, which at first seems abrupt (and a little unsatisfying), then more involved and complicated (but still unsatisfying). There are chases and daring escapes. But all of this is hardly the point. (Which is not to say that the details are unenjoyable, only that they are incidentals, and that they allow Langer to show off his dexterity with several genres, including but not limited to the romance, the quest narrative, the thriller, and the satire.) The plot—intricate and improbable—is hardly the point. The point is that the publishing industry is corrupt, that it cares too much about profit and too little about integrity. And that these circumstances force writers to care too much about publication and too little about honesty, emotional and intellectual both. And that the truth and love and talent somehow triumph anyway, despite this perfect storm of obstacles. But—and this is a question that The Thieves of Manhattan repeatedly, tantalizingly brandishes—what is the truth, at least when it comes to writing? The answers implied by the narrative’s twists and turns are mostly disingenuous. Lies can be truths of sorts, Ian would have us belief; patent falsehoods can collapse into profundity, conceal something immensely significant. But, at least in the case of all those other fake memoirs, lovingly catalogued in the novel, which unfolds against a backdrop of revelations about Leroy and Frey and other false confessions, we learned very little of value when the hoax fell apart, except that sometimes people lie, and they get away with it because other people want to believe them. And where Langer’s somewhat open-ended conclusion allows us to believe redemption is possible, the case of Laura Albert et al. hardly testifies to this. Exposed as frauds, the once-celebrated memoirists were almost immediately branded and derided, sometimes by insinuation, sometimes quite openly, fairly or un-, as bad writers. Scandal sells, but scandal also passes, and the duped take revenge by forgetting and moving on. (And anyway we now have our reality [or is that “reality”?] dating shows and their contestants to cycle through deception and redemption for our enjoyment. And maybe there is a lesson there: if you are going to publish a fake memoir, your endgame should really be a reality show, not another book contract.)
There is one other detail that demands notice. Langer scatters throughout his prose a number of (unconnected) literary allusions, handily annotated in the glossary appended to the novel. The device—through which overcoats are labeled “googols,” guns “caninos,” fancy glasses, “franzens,” impressive book advances, “fraziers”—is first remarked on when Ian reads through Roth’s manuscript of A Thief in Manhattan; approvingly observing Roth’s “knowing literary references…a literary sort of slang,” which elevates his decidedly unliterary adventure story to loftier levels. But the overall effect of this “literary slang” is somewhat different. The promiscuity of reference—encompassing Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Poppins, and S.E. Hinton, and Leo Tolstoy, to give a mere sampling, whose inclusion is guided by no discernible rhyme or reason—suggests that one definitive truth about book writing is that the façade of knowingness—a knowingness you do not necessarily expect your readers to share—is the real secret to success.