by David Gordon
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Kemper
(I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)
The main character in this story is a writer who spends all his time coming up with the kind of books that no one wants to read. Fortunately, David Gordon is very different from his creation in that he’s a writer that I very much enjoyed reading.
Sam Korberg has spent his adult life trying to do the kind of important novels that have no plot, and he’s had little success at it. His wife Lola has had enough and leaves with the ultimatum that unless he gets a real job and shows some more ambition, then they’re finished. Sam searches frantically for work, but there aren't a lot of opportunities for failed novelists with no other skills until he gets an offer to be an assistant to a private investigator, eccentric Solar Lansky.
Lansky is an obese shut-in who lives with his mother, but he’s also a brilliant detective who needs help since he won‘t leave the house. He wants Kornberg to follow a woman named Mona and report on her activities. Kornberg bumbles through the assignment which seems unremarkable at first but soon turns into a twisted mess involving the missing films of a dead director with a cult following.
The story is pretty clear about it’s inspirations with a plot obviously based on Nero Wolfe and then taking several Vertigo style twists after the movie is mentioned. The whole thing is a little hard to pin down, but in a good way. It starts as out seeming as if it will be a comedy with Sam being a foolish twit who has wasted his time and alienated his wife by dedicating his life to writing incomprehensible fiction, but the ground shifts constantly under your feet here. There's a lot of the elements you'd expect from a goofy crime caper with Sam being a sad sack loser who meets a wide variety of odd characters, but eventually the story has Sam expressing genuinely touching thoughts of fear about his imploding marriage and regret at the way he has let down the woman he loves.
While there’s always a sense of humor, the story becomes darker, and the violence escalates beyond the cartoon level you’d expect after the first few chapters. What really sets it apart is the theme about creating art, and if it’s even possible today. Sam explains his love of reading dense books and how it inspired his writing in an especially poignant section, and there’s a theory brought up several times that the real periods of human creativity have passed leaving only commercial hacks to prosper.
This book surprised me in all the right ways and what I thought would just be a mystery story played for laughs actually had a lot to say that any hard core reader will be interested in.