09 Feb 2006
Lit Life” or Lit Lite? That’s the question that pops to mind after finishing Kurt Wenzel’s pseudo roman a clef, a debut novel by someone who knows the addresses of New York’s literary society, but little of what goes on inside their heads.
Its formula is simple: take the last half-century of American lit, New York division only, and wrap it around the theme of an artist’s struggle between the demands of art and the temptations of commerce.
“Lit Life” would make a great party game, along the lines of the one played in the book, in which the first line of a novel is quoted and the players must come up with the book and author. Is Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInery closer to Kyle Clayton, the brat pack hotshot who’s eight years past the blazing success of his debut novel, now infested with writer’s block and an adoration of alcohol, on the outs with his friends, his co-writers and his agent? Then there are his potential mentors: the elderly “writer’s writer” — meaning critical favorite but no sales — Richard Whitehurst, whose last book, in the works for ten years, bombed (let’s see, reclusive yet respected and depressive, that’s William Gaddis, and the decade-long book that bombed could be “The Tunnel,” by William Gass); and Arthur Trebelaine, the popular writer with the Hemingwayesque reputation (Herman Wouk? Mario Puzo? How about Irwin Shaw? Discuss.)
When Kyle’s latest escapade made him persona non grata in Manhatten, he accepts Richard’s invitation to spend the summer with him at his house on Long Island. There, he finds himself rejuvenated enough to resume writing, but he’s also plunged into Whitehurst’s crippled family, consisting of his estranged and attractive younger wife, the drug-addicted wild daughter who blames daddy for everything bad that’s happened to her (Elizabeth Wurzel! Just kidding.). Kyle also finds himself becoming the rope in a tug-of-war between Richard and Arthur, whose close friendship is unraveling rapidly under the stress of jealousy, envy, paranoia and fear.
Don’t expect to find sympathetic characters; the three writers are sometimes charming, but all monsters in different ways, and their self-absorption makes me want to hit them with a clue stick. But if you’re interested in the tribulations and paranoia of the writing life, “Lit Life” offers a stress-free, sometimes amusing voyage, sort of like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland: see the old-fashioned agent dunking pickles into his coffee at a deli meeting with a writer; see the rapacious publisher threatening to sue to get Kyle’s advance back; see the combination of back-biting and brown-nosing that goes on at a PEN party. Some of the story lines don’t make sense. Would “The Paris Review” really favor a profile of Trebelaine over Whitehurst? And what did Chevy Chase do to Wenzel that earned him an extended cameo as a buffoon during a charity softball game on the Hamptons that co-starred Martha Stuart, Billy Joel and coach John Grisham?
But it’s just hot enough to get bitchy, not to get mad. Wenzel displays a wonderful skill at crafting satirical barbs and effortless prose. “Lit Life” is a slightly pre-chewed chunk of summer fiction that can be quickly read and digested before the weekend’s over.