The charming heroes of Jonathan Galassi’s first novel, “Muse,” are a pair of “gentlemanly thieves,” which is another way of saying that they are book publishers in New York.
Like his heroes, Galassi, who is an accomplished poet and translator, has spent a lifetime in that sordid and sophisticated world; he’s currently president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. His novel is a thinly camouflaged depiction of the “swarming dunghill” of publishers, editors, and agents who are the power brokers of the literary elite. While the book is laced with nostalgic affection and comic scorn, its primary ingredient is exuberant gossip.
Galassi’s protagonists are Homer Stern and Sterling Wainwright, rival publishers who compete fiercely for readers and authors. Stern is president of Purcell & Stern; Wainwright leads Impetus, a small but venerable independent publisher. Both inhabit grungy offices near Union Square and boast flourishing lists of famous authors.
Stern and Wainwright seem loosely modeled on Roger W. Straus Jr. and Robert Giroux, respectively, the “S” and “G” of FSG. But an attentive reader of Boris Kachka’s “Hothouse,” the gossipy 2013 history of FSG, could surely trace dozens of other characters, quips, and anecdotes in Galassi’s novel to real-world sources.
The novel is an enjoyably incestuous tangle of life and art, with allusions that branch beyond the insular realm of New York publishing and into American literary culture. Some of the references are veiled but transparent; it’s not too hard to recognize Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud as the trio of leading Jewish novelists that Galassi dubs “Abe Burack, Byron Hummock, and Jonathan Targoff.” Some are slightly trickier; Joseph Brodsky, the Russian poet and Nobel laureate, may be the model for the extravagantly named Dmitry Chavchavadze, while Jamaica Kincaid might have morphed into Grenada Brooks.
Other names are simply unaltered; John Updike and William Styron are relegated to a group of “less interesting, more self-regarding WASPs,” who form a second-tier beneath the excellent “anxiety-ridden, attitude-infused Jewish-American novelists.”
The plot follows the career of a rising young editor named Paul Dukach as he navigates tipsy lunches with predatory agents, appeases touchy but talented authors, and braves the raucous debauchery of the Frankfurt Book Fair, an event full of “carnivorousness at its most rapacious, with a genteel European veneer.”
The tussle between high art and crude commerce, between publishing as a noble calling and a seamy business, generates much comic posing throughout the novel. Homer calls one particularly greedy agent “a toothpaste salesman” and thinks that the adjective “big,” when modifying publishers like Random House and HarperCollins, is best translated as “irrelevant commercial.” But he also swoons over strong sales figures and cuts many a mercenary deal.
Paul works for Stern and befriends Wainwright, and all three men share an obsession with a brilliant poet named Ida Perkins. Perkins is a wonderful mashup of literary figures; she’s as witty as Dorothy Parker, as promiscuous as Edna St. Vincent Millay, and as universally beloved and read as no actual American poet ever is. Accessible and critically respected, an influence on everyone from Sylvia Plath to Theodore
Roethke, Perkins is a cultural force who captivates readers as diverse as President Obama and Alice B. Toklas. Her books easily sell 750,000 copies and win prestigious awards; they inspire abstruse dissertations and appeal to schoolchildren.
Stern and Wainwright are naturally smitten with her, and Paul becomes embroiled in a tangled situation involving the publication of her final manuscript.
Yet despite its fantasies about best-selling poets and some unabashed nostalgia for the bygone days of publishing, the novel also examines the 21st-century forces disrupting the world of books.
By its later sections, Paul and the publishing industry confront a rapacious, mostly evil online book retailer called Medusa and acknowledge, with much moaning, the inevitability of e-books and digital platforms. The barely disguised proxy for Amazon is indifferent to the demise of small bookstores and unconcerned that its pricing fails to reward the toils of perfectionist authors. The model of passionate and egotistical publishers shaping the industry has faded by the novel’s end, but the preceding pages preserve the quirks and charms of a colorful era in literary culture.
By Jonathan Galassi
Knopf, 258 pp., $24
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.