Famous Writers I Have Known
By James Magnuson
Published in 2014 by W.W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by Noelle O’Donnell
When professional con artist Frankie Abandonato’s partner is murdered after the pair unknowingly cons a mobster with a lottery scam, he flees New York City on the next flight to Austin. Once he arrives, he is mistaken for acclaimed, hermit-like writer, V.S. Mohle, (who was asked to teach for a semester at the university’s creative writing institute), and the delightful absurdity of James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known takes off.
The real V.S. Mohle, was invited to teach at the university by Rex Schoeninger, a best-selling American novelist and director of the institute. Schoeninger is on his deathbed and had offered Mohle, the position as a way of settling an old feud the two authors had years ago (the feud left Mohle broke and he never wrote again).
Magnuson is the director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, and charmingly puts his experience into play through his characters, poking fun at grandiose projects, such as one student’s series of post-modern fables based on the Book of Revelation. “When Nick tried to lay all that bullshit about the Book of Revelation on us, all I could do was point a finger at the boy and go, ‘Now, that’s an idea!’” Or noting that the students’ attitude towards using clichés is like “murdering your children.” Some of the best scenes in the novel take place during these writing workshops, and even though he doesn’t know James Joyce from Elroy James, or even basic creative writing terms, Frankie is able to pull off posing as Mohle, feeding off his students fascination with him, (or who they believe him to be), giving in-class writing exercises, and critiquing their work, (one student manages to sell her manuscript for quite a lot of money based on his half-baked in-class criticism of her story).
The two dueling authors evoke real life ones—Schoeninger’s writes mammoth-sized novels, suggestive of James Michener’s body of work, while V.S. Mohle is a reclusive, Salinger-esque type of character whose initial success doesn’t sit well with him.
Eventually, the inevitable happens, (and we know this from the very beginning of the story, as the novel starts with Frankie writing in prison) but no spoilers from me…
Famous Writers I Have Known is a witty, steadily paced story, full of references that writers and lovers of literary fiction will no doubt appreciate.
Noelle O’Donnell holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a staff member at the Writers’ League of Texas. She writes short fiction, personal essays and has dabbled in sketch comedy and screenwriting. She lives in Austin.