Crosswords And Con Men Meet In 'Manhattan'

The Thieves Of Manhattan
The Thieves Of Manhattan
By Adam Langer
Paperback, 272 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List price: $15
Read An Excerpt

The Thieves of Manhattan, an enigmatic new book by Adam Langer, is hard to classify. On one level, it's a novel filled with intrigue and mystery; on another, it's a thinly veiled memoir about a writer's relationship to the publishing industry; on yet another, it could be nothing more than a giant con game.

Into which of these categories does Langer think his book falls? "Well, I hope it's all three," he tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "I hope there's a certain amount of truth in it, I hope there's a lot of invention, and I hope it'll take everyone by surprise, which is what a good con game should do."

To complicate matters even more, Langer announces for the first time — "I haven't told my publisher and I haven't told my editor; you're the first person I'm telling" — that he has hidden five or six puzzles throughout the book. "They don't add to the plot, necessarily, but it could give you another level of understanding if you catch them," he says.

That plot, by the way, sounds simple enough when Langer explains its basics. The Thieves of Manhattan is "a story about a down-on-his-luck writer who gets an offer he can't refuse ... because he's got no money. And the offer is to put his name to a fake memoir and, in so doing, scam the publishing industry."

After this relatively straightforward beginning, though, the novel begins to twist and turn like a Mobius strip. It makes sense, then, to learn that Langer was heavily influenced by a celebrated puzzle-maker: "Every day before I sat down to write, I did the New York Times crossword puzzle. If anybody influenced me for this book, it was Will Shortz."

Langer is so dedicated to enigmas that he even invents his own publishing vernacular in the book. In The Thieves of Manhattan, to "Woolf" means to think rapidly, just like Virginia Woolf (who was famous for converting her own fast-moving consciousness into prose). A large advance is called a Frazier, after Charles Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain. Characters drink a libation called a Fitzgerald.

"I didn't want to overdo it with the language, but I did use it a bit," the author says. He plays with jargon in order to pay homage to the technical language that often pops up in thrillers: "There's hardboiled jargon, ... technical jargon when you go through procedurals. And I thought, if I'm writing a thriller about the publishing industry, it should have its own slang, too — and it should be literary."

Adam Langer i i

hide captionAdam Langer is also the author of four previous works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several plays.

Andreas Von Lintel
Adam Langer

Adam Langer is also the author of four previous works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several plays.

Andreas Von Lintel

Langer also looked to some of the greatest publishing hoaxes in history for inspiration. He cites the story of Magdalen King-Hall, for example, who wrote an account of a "young woman of fashion" living in Paris in the 18th century, then tried to pass off the book as an actual diary. Then there's Ern Malley, a fictional modernist poet created by two Australian writers who took that nation by storm in the 1940s.

More recent events also stirred Langer. "I started writing this during a period where there was just a ton of this going on," he says, "when we had people who were supposedly plagiarizing memoirs or making them up" — writers such as Margaret Seltzer, who wrote a fabricated memoir about having a hard-knock life in South Central Los Angeles that was published in 2008.

Why do publishing professionals keep getting fooled by fakers? Langer thinks it's because they "love being taken in by a good story. And sometimes a person's talent as a storyteller can go past people's nonsense detector."

The author, for his part, has always been drawn to tales of deceit, like Orson Welles' film F for Fake. In a broader sense, Langer also intends Thieves of Manhattan to be sort of like Sunset Boulevard: that is, "something that both show[s] respect to an industry but savage[s] it at the same time."

A labyrinthine plot, made-up jargon, influences from the crossword puzzle to Billy Wilder — it's no wonder that while writing his novel, Langer tried to keep himself on track by taping colored index cards scribbled with details on a wall. "But I actually never looked at them," he says, because they kept getting detached.

Luckily, that wasn't much of a roadblock for Langer. "Most of this was written in a spurt of frantic action, blasting Elvis Costello music for about six weeks," he says.

Then again, The Thieves of Manhattan may not truly be finished, even though its final manuscript has been published. When asked whether his story ends on his book's last page, Langer gives a typically mysterious answer: "No story does."

Excerpt: 'The Thieves Of Manhattan'

The Thieves Of Manhattan
The Thieves Of Manhattan
By Adam Langer
Paperback, 272 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List price: $15
Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

The Confident Man

To tell you the truth, I'd have noticed the guy even if Faye hadn't pointed him out to me. He was slicker than the usual Morningside Coffee crowd — off-white linen suit, black silk shirt buttoned to the throat, Jonathan Franzen–style designer glasses — but what made me stop wiping tables and look just a bit longer was the fact that he was reading a copy of Blade by Blade. That autumn, it seemed as though Blade Markham's book was everywhere — every subway station corridor had posters with that canary yellow book cover on them; every bookstore window displayed a cardboard cutout of a glowering Blade sporting a nine o'clock shadow; half the suckers who sat next to me on the bus were reading that so-called memoir.

Faye, strands of red hair dangling past her olive green eyes from under her Morningside Coffee visor, was humming "Dust in the Wind" and absentmindedly drawing a sketch of the guy on her notepad. She'd written "Confident Man" underneath it. That's how the name stuck with me. Meanwhile, bitter, gossipy Joseph, all 315 pounds of him, hunched over the counter, going over lines for an audition, vainly hoping that some casting director wanted a guy his size with white-boy dreadlocks, flip-flops, and a goatee. It had been another slow night, and now the Confident Man was the only customer left in the shop.

"Too bad his taste in books doesn't match his taste in clothes," Faye said to me. She smiled and returned to her sketch.

Faye Curry was probably already trying to flirt with me then, but I had a girl, Anya Petrescu. Just about everything Faye said tended to go right past me anyway. Artsy and bookish guys always lurked at the counter and chatted her up because she had a droll wit and liked to be distracted when she was working, but she was way too subtle for me. She had the looks and smarts I tended to notice only after the fact, usually after the woman in question had gotten engaged to someone else or had already left town or had decided she was done with men. Back then, with her torn jeans, baseball caps, vintage concert shirts, and paint-spattered boots, I wasn't sure if she was into guys anyway. So that night I wasn't focusing on the fact that she was grinning at me instead of scowling, that she was wearing perfume or maybe using new shampoo. That night, I was more interested in the book the Confident Man was reading.

"Bogus pile of crap," I muttered. I didn't realize I'd said it out loud. But Joseph shot me a glance and Faye smiled at me again as if both of them had heard. I looked back down and went on wiping the tables, putting the chairs up, trying to stop thinking about that book and Blade Markham.

Just the night before, during yet another bout of writer's block and insomnia, I'd been flipping channels when I stumbled on Markham blowing hard on a rebroadcast of Pam Layne's daytime talk show. There the guy was, hawking his memoir on the biggest book show going, yammering about his heroin addiction and the time he spent with the Crips and the month he went AWOL during the first Gulf War and his conversion to Buddhism and whatever else he'd made up and sold to Merrill Books — a half million bucks for the North American rights alone. I didn't believe a word of it, but Layne's studio audience couldn't get enough, gasping and clapping and laughing as Markham spouted one lie after another. All the while, Pam Layne kept up her credulous questions, using street slang that must have been written on cue cards by whichever one of her assistants had actually read the book:

"Don't you worry that some of these men you mention in your book, some of these hustlas, might try to put a cap in yo' ass?" she asked Blade. "That they might try to take yo' ass out?"

"Naw, that ain't too likely," Blade told Pam. "You know, sistuh, the punks I wrote about in my book, they all dead, yo."

Up there on that TV talk show set, Blade was acting like some old-school hip-hopper, throwing his arms out, crossing them over his chest, flashing made-up gang signs, ending all his sentences with "yo," even though he was probably just some rich boy from Maplewood, New Jersey, whose real name was Blaine Markowitz — that's what Anya and I used to joke anyway. Everything about Blade Markham seemed like some kind of lie — his words, his shabby outfit that he'd probably planned out a week in advance, even the cross he wore around his neck.

"It ain't a cross for Christ; it's a T for Truth, yo," he told Pam Layne. That's when I flipped off the TV, went back to bed in my clothes, and tried in vain to think of a story to write, tried in vain to get some sleep.

Now here in the coffee shop was the Confident Man, one more Blade Markham fan than I could stand. So when I went over to his table and told him we were closing and that he had to scram, I might have sounded harsher than I intended. Faye bust out laughing, and Joseph, who seemed always to be looking for just the right time to can me, flashed a "one more outburst and you're gone" glare.

The Confident Man dog-eared a page of his book, put on his black cashmere gogol, belted it, went over to the tip jar, and stuffed in a twenty-dollar bill, which just about doubled our tips for the night. He walked out onto Broadway without saying a word.

"Think that guy craves you," Faye said, raising one eyebrow. Joseph snickered — jokes at my expense always cracked him up. I finished cleaning, collected my share of the tips from Joseph, said sayonara to Faye, and headed down to the KGB Bar to meet Anya. By the time I got there, I was still stewing about Blade by Blade, but I had all but forgotten the Confident Man.

Excerpted from The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer Copyright 2010 by Adam Langer. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House Inc.

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