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Book review

‘Famous Writers I Have Known’ by James Magnuson

tomasz walenta for the boston globe

Is every writer a fraud? Ask low-rent con artist Frankie Abandonato, first-person protagonist of James Magnuson’s bittersweet new novel, “Famous Writers I Have Known.” When Frankie pulls a lottery-ticket scam that runs him afoul of the New York mob, he high-tails it to Austin, Texas, and poses as a visiting writer at a prestigious creative-writing institute. Though he doesn’t know Henry James from James Patterson, Frankie manages to lead workshops, give a reading, make tipsy conversation at departmental parties, and fool everyone for a good long while. He does get found out — no spoilers here; the book starts with him in prison — but how he evades detection for so long makes for a heck of a story.

If writers are frauds or at least susceptible to them, Magnuson should know — he directs the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. It’s unlikely that anyone else has managed a more ingenious way to caricature his workplace in a manner completely in line with his job description. “Famous Writers I Have Known” is not, however, a trenchant satire; most of the fun Magnuson pokes is gentle and tinged with affection for the sundry weirdos you might encounter in a writing program. There’s Chad, Frankie’s stoned assistant; Wayne, the hapless director and Magnuson’s proxy, prone to fits of effusion and self-loathing; and Frankie’s students, a rather sweet lot marked by credulousness, petty rivalries, and endless one-upmanship.

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Magnuson’s perspective is welcome and rare: Though publishing satires abound, novel-length, gimlet-eyed looks at institutionalized creativity are harder to come by. Their relative scarcity seems strange when stacked up against the proliferation of programs — though the number of full-residency graduate-level creative writing departments in the nation hovers around 150, their collective influence is impressive. Even if a writer “has somehow never heard of an MFA program, or set foot on a college campus, it doesn’t matter,” wrote the novelist Chad Harbach in a widely-read Slate magazine essay. “[If] she’s read any American fiction of the past 60 years, or met someone who did, she’s imbibed the general idea and aesthetic. We are all MFAs now.”

By planting a wise guy in a writing program, Magnuson pushes Harbach’s maxim to the limit, but another, largely absent character provides an equally incisive critique of MFA culture. Frankie’s ruse hinges on his resemblance of reclusive literary genius V.S. Mohle, a man who hasn’t appeared in public in 25 years.

Like another famously cloistered pair of initials, Mohle wrote a seminal coming-of-age novel in the 1960s with a grain-based title. Soon after he published “Eat Your Wheaties,” Mohle retreated to New England and hasn’t published a word since. Unlike his real-world analogue, he had a knockdown feud with another novelist, Rex Schoeninger, who went on to fund the writing institute at which Mohle has been invited to teach.

In on the gag, we watch as Frankie circulates within the program: Each writer reacts in her own way to the intellectual giant they believe walks among them. But Frankie-as-Mohle serves as more than just a totem of literary greatness that reveals the true nature of those who behold him; his iconoclasm reminds the reader that many of the titans of American postwar fiction — including J.D. Salinger — never sought writing degrees or endured the terrors of a workshop.

Although the real Mohle remains a shadow for the most part, the character of Rex Schoeninger, a wealthy, once-popular writer on the cusp of being forgotten, is the novel’s most vivid and sad. Through Schoeninger, Magnuson addresses the heartbreak of worldly success without critical recognition. He also accomplishes something far stranger: a nuanced reflection on the life and legacy of James Michener, his late boss.

Readers born in the second half of the 20th century might not be familiar with Michener as anything other than a name and some broad details; when I realized I’d never encountered any of Michener’s books while obtaining either of my English degrees or did so much as glance at one while working for years in bookstores, Magnuson’s portrait became all the sadder.

Michener, who died in 1997, was one of the most commercially successful novelists of the last hundred years. He wrote 40 exhaustively researched, best-selling doorstops, many of them multigenerational epics set in places frequently identified by their titles — “Poland,” “Caribbean,” “South Pacific,” “Hawaii,” “Texas.” And a number were turned into movies, including “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,’’ “Sayonara,’’ and “Hawaii.’’ He was of undetermined parentage, gave oodles of money to charity, and cycled through a trio of wives.

When we meet Schoeninger, he’s an old coot with a small coterie of lady servants and a chip on his shoulder. He’s hounded by an endless parade of supplicants and the worry that he will pass from this world without having been taken seriously. The fallout with Mohle happened years before during an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show’’ when Mohle dismissed Schoeninger’s oeuvre as feel-good pabulum about “how scrapple is made, how much rainfall it takes to grow a sugar beet, how to tan a buffalo hide.” Despite his considerable riches and the Pulitzer under his belt, Schoeninger has never quite gotten over the insult.

The burgeoning connection between the con man and the great man drives the plot, transforming what very easily could have been a cheap gimmick into an affecting story. Are frauds all that terrible? By the time Frankie lands in prison, it’s hard to tell.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.
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