Book Review: 'Famous Writers I Have Known'

Alan Cheuse reviews a new novel by James Magnuson, Famous Writers I Have Known.

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Conman and writer - not two career choices I would likely put together - but James Magnuson's new novel, "Famous Writers I Have Known," does just that. Director of the University of Texas's writing program, Magnuson knows a thing or two about teaching his craft. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, delves into Magnuson's new satirical comedy, which he calls a delightful take on writing programs and American life.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: On the run from some vengeful New York mobsters, conman Frankie Abandonato, in a neat plot twist right up front, hides in plain sight down in Austin, Texas, posing as one of America's most lauded and secretive writers, a novelist appropriately named V.S. Mohle - sort of a Salinger stand-in. For a number of months, Abandonato scams a lot of people in the writing world: the director of the writing center at the University of Texas - not the author of this novel, of course, but a sort of pathetic doppelganger of same - and the bestselling novelist in decline who's underwritten a lot of the Texas program - a sort of pathetic doppelganger of the late James Michener - and an elite cadre of worshipful fiction students who place themselves at his feet. Abandonato treats them all to his version of a great novelist, winging it every day, with a little help from some instructive articles and his conman instincts, producing sweet comedy for us as readers as he goes.

We work in the dark, he mulls over Henry James's famous dictum about writing fiction. We do what we can. Now, what that meant, he admits, I had no clue. The only people I knew who worked in the dark were cat burglars and heating duct repairmen. Before his scheme begins, as it must, to fall apart, Frankie does learn something important about the life of a writer. This whole writing thing was worse than heroin, he observes. The story he tells of his unusual and comic and sweetly told caper will be addictive in itself for all passionate writers and readers.

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The novel is "Famous Writer I Have Known" by James Magnuson. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse.

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