Book review: Jesse Kellerman's 'Potboiler' sets thrillers on their ears
Share with others:
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Jesse Kellerman's "Potboiler" begins as a tough, funny satire of the titled genre, does a brilliant conceptual backflip at the one-third mark, then begins a slow motion de-evolution because of the impossibility of having it both ways -- making fun of a genre while coexisting with said genre.
Mostly, Mr. Kellerman wants to have fun with thrillers -- their ridiculous plots, their often flamboyantly bad writing.
That, at least, is the considered opinion of Arthur Pfefferkorn, a middle-age adjunct professor who wrote one novel and stalled, while his college pal Bill de Vallee has made a fortune with more than 30 books about Dick Stapp, a physically invincible figure who constantly finds himself amid conspiracies of dizzying complexity.
Pfefferkorn has read a couple of the Stapp books, but not many because they're full of bad writing. Stapp never "says" anything. Rather, he avows, exclaims, interjects, pipes up or squawks. And Stapp performs every physical action "in one fluid motion."
They're vast compendiums of linguistic cliches, the public laps them up, Stephen King and Lee Child blurb them enthusiastically, if nonsensically, and through it all Arthur Pfefferkorn dies a little. De Vallee has it made, right up until he dies in a boating accident.
Pfefferkorn goes to the memorial service, where he strikes sparks with the grieving widow, whom he had lusted after in college. Before you know it, she's taking time out from her grieving by putting Pfefferkorn through the bedroom paces. And then Pfefferkorn steals the last de Vallee manuscript, changes the names, issues it under his own name, and becomes a best-selling author himself.
It is at this point that Mr. Kellerman dispenses his best comic idea. It turns out that de Vallee was actually working for the government, and that the bad writing, the catchphrases, the "in one fluid motion" are actually encrypted directives ordering clandestine activities for operatives in deep cover in obscure countries in Europe.
And one other thing: the Stapp novels that de Vallee wrote? He didn't write them. The Boys -- i.e. the agency -- wrote them.
"Most blockbuster American novelists are on our payroll," explains Lucius Savory, de Vallee's agent. "Anything with embossed foil letters, that's us."
And with that we're through the looking glass as poor Pfefferkorn finds himself a pawn forced to become a spy who remains a pawn.
"If Pfefferkorn was shaken before, he was really quite badly shaken now. He was like a martini inside a rock tumbler being held by a detoxing epileptic standing on stilts atop a trampoline inside the San Andreas fault."
Mr. Kellerman is creating a niche for himself by focusing on characters who are never as smart as they think they are. This certainly takes in Pfefferkorn, who is torn between seeing himself as a schlub, or a dashing stud: "He stared hard at the sky. It was the hard stare of a man hardening himself to hard truths. He sensed changes, hard ones, taking place within his soul."
As the plot becomes ever-more hallucinatory, the balloon of wit begins to deflate slightly, and Mr. Kellerman begins dropping one-liners with tortured metaphors:
"He grabbed Savory around the neck and wrung him like a chicken on the eve of Yom Kippur."
"He had been blessed more than a hooker having an allergy attack inside a confessional."
Mr. Kellerman has constructed a frequently hilarious Mobius strip of a novel that can't possibly have a payoff equal to the brilliant setup, because the author holds the artificial world he's deconstructing in more or less complete contempt. But Kafka would have appreciated some of the jokes.
First Published June 26, 2012 12:00 am