Book Reviews | September 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

The Salinger Contract

Salinger Contract.JPGIn the midst of all the recent Salingermania, I discovered a new novel called The Salinger Contract (Open Road Media, paperback, $16.99). Its dual narrative concerns two writers--one a former journalist whose primary job these days is stay-at-home dad, the other a successful thriller writer with waning talent and confidence. An uneasy friendship develops between them when a Chicago book collector with a penchant for reclusive authors makes a provocative offer and sends the plot spinning. I loved the novel's dark playfulness and its fresh approach to the biblio-fiction genre that has been feeling stale of late (in that way, it reminded me of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, but I found The Salinger Contract more complex and more enjoyable.)    

As fate would have it, the author is Adam Langer, a magazine editor with whom I worked a dozen years ago at a start-up called Book Magazine. He and I haven't been in touch since, so this felt like a great opportunity to seek him out and tell him how much I enjoyed his novel--and also to ask him a few questions about the story.

RRB: I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the antagonist is a collector who insists on hoarding manuscripts that will never be published, indeed will never be read by anyone else. In fiction, collectors are often depicted as sinister and compulsive, but you give it a bigger twist. Do you think collectors get a bad rap?! (And do you collect anything?)

AL: Well, I would hate to think of my collector character representing collectors as a whole group of people. For myself, I can't say that I'm much of a collector except in the case of stories, which my collector character also collects in his own sinister way. When I was younger, I collected baseball cards and stamps and my father gave me his stamp collection, which I still have and cherish. And somewhere safely locked away, I do have some Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente baseball cards, which aren't worth anywhere near what one would think because I never thought to keep them in mint condition. But, like the stamps, they're more valuable for their role in history--both mine and history in general--than whatever negligible resale value they might have.

RRB: It's impossible to ignore the fact that the novel's main character shares your name -- why did you do that? After all, you're not a house husband/aspiring writer in Bloomington, Indiana.

AL: Well, I was living in Bloomington for a while so that's actually true. The real reason for using my name is because I thought it was as good a method as any to get the reader to trust me, which, of course, is almost always a silly thing for a reader to do. I wanted to start out with some basic realities, then totally warp them into a funhouse reflection of reality, and the easiest way to do that was to use a lot of elements of my own biography. There are also some very specific reasons why I thought that using my own name and that of my father would work well for the plot, but I probably shouldn't get into that.

RRB: One of the blurbs on the back of the book describes the plot as a series of "nesting boxes," (I was thinking Russian dolls), but your novel has that Calvino-esque quality. Was it hard to plot out? How long did it take you to conceive and write it?

AL: I love Calvino. When my Italian professor Doris Ingrosso introduced me to The Baron in the Trees I was totally taken with it. I had a similar reaction, perhaps an even more profound one to If On a Winter's Night A Traveler. Both taught me how much you could play with form in a novel and still tell an engaging story. As for The Salinger Contract, I didn't really plot it out. I'm not a writer who outlines. I follow the plot where it takes me. I let it surprise me and then I spend a lot of time backtracking and making sure it all makes sense. It might not be the most logical method for writing a novel, but it's fairly organic and it's the one that I find most satisfying.

RRB: Your book takes literally the adage that a book can "save your life." What book--metaphorically speaking--saved your life?  

AL: I don't think any one book saved my life, but there are certainly plenty that helped to form who I am, and if they didn't save me, they did change me. Probably for each phase of my life, there's a different book or series of books. When I was a kid, it was Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona books, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and Donald Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books and Secret Agents Four. When I was in high school, it was Kerouac, particularly On the Road and The Subterraneans and also a play by Simon Gray called Quartermaine's Terms. In college, it was Calvino and Borges. When I was studying literature in grad school, it was Jane Eyre and The Aeneid. There has been a Graham Greene phase and a G.K. Chesterton phase and an Edna O'Brien phase and a Joseph Conrad phase. And about ten years ago, I got into a Virginia Woolf phase that I still haven't gotten out of. Even now, when I'm stuck or I don't know what to write about, I pick up The Waves or To The Lighthouse. Most recently, the book that blew me away was one I was surprised I'd never read before--Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

RRB: As a reader, do you enjoy "biblio-fiction" -- meaning novels about rare books and manuscripts -- and if so, what are some of your favorites?

AL: The first character that comes to mind is Arthur Geiger in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. And then there's James Atlas's The Great Pretender. I really liked the first fifty pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind, but then I misplaced the novel and never actually finished it.

RRB: And with a title like The Salinger Contract, I have to ask, will you see the new Salinger documentary?

AL: I did. I didn't hate it as much as some people did, but it's not a very good movie. And now that all the spoilers have been spoiled--more Salinger books are on their way; Salinger was pretty much a creep; Salinger was deeply affected by the time he spent in the war--there's no real artistic reason to see the movie. But then again, I've never been all that interested in author's biographies. That's why I decided to make some up, including my own.