James Magnuson. Famous Authors I Have Known. New York: Norton, 2015. E-book.
Frankie and Barry are career confidence men in New York City. As the story opens, Barry has found a victim who is willing to pay thousands for a forged winning lottery ticket worth millions. It all seems to be going smoothly enough for these hustlers. Barry sells the ticket to a guy named Joey who takes a stack of hundred dollar bills out of the book for the ticket.
Afterwards, the bank withdrawal ticket found among the Benjamins tells them their mark was Joseph Cannetti, Jr., of New Jersey. Joseph Cannetti, Sr., is a Mafia capo. Sure enough, Frankie finds Barry in his apartment bleeding to death and a giant hit man cleaning up in the next room.
Frankie immediately takes a taxi to LaGuardia Airport and finds the next plane he can leave on. He does not care where it is going. He has enough forged plastic and identifications to last for a while. It turns out his destination is Austin, Texas. While waiting in line, he notices a little scuffle involving a man who looks a lot like Frankie himself. Some people in line seemed to recognize this man as he suddenly tears up his boarding pass and heads for the exit.
When Frankie arrives at the Austin airport, three attractive female graduate students come to him and tell him they are there to pick him up. They think he is the famous recluse author V. S. Mohle whom they are taking to the Fiction Institute of Texas where he is supposed to be teaching as semester-long writing workshop. Being out of ideas, this looks relatively safe, so Frankie goes along with it. No hitman is going to attack a famous writer.
Mohle is a J. D. Salinger-type character, author of one perennially popular teen novel called Eat Your Wheaties. He has lived on an island off the coast of Maine for twenty-five years and has made no public appearance—nor written anything else—since he had a run-in with the prolific Rex Schoeninger, author of thick historical-geographical novels that have sold millions. Schoeninger is like an aging and slightly infirm James Michener.
We get a few details about Eat Your Wheaties. It is about two teenage boys from New York City who try to find some adventure in the city, not unlike Holden Caulfield. They then go on cross-country trip looking for the father of one of the boys. On the Road anyone? The book title itself suggest Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Yeah, we see.
That is the setup. If you, the reader, are still with me, then you have to check this out. Frankie does a very clever job at pretending to be Mohle. He has these MFA students in awe. Since Eat Your Wheaties, like Catcher in the Rye, is set in New York, he tells stories of his own experiences in the city which his students see as inspiring the novel. He is a confidence man, so conning is what he does well. Any literary reader will get a kick out of how he pulls the wool over the eyes of the self-important.
It turns out that Rex Schoeninger is footing the bill for “V. S. Mohle’s” class in order to make things right before he shuffles off his mortal coil. Of course, it gets complicated, especially when Schoeninger is nominated for a European writing award which our con artist Frankie suspects is a con itself. This is where Frankie does interact with a few other famous writers, notably Günter Grass.
Famous Writers I Have Known is not unlike a one-man caper story, but it cleverly satirizes writers’ institutes, MFA programs, and some literary prizes. I once roomed with the author of a novel that won a regional literary prize who complained that the prize did not help him sell one more book. It should appeal to English majors, MFA students, and other “literary” readers—as well as those who enjoy a good con.