Jesse Kellerman’s latest novel, Potboiler, is much different from his previous ones. The chapters are short (a la James Patterson) and replete with dialogue, plus there’s a lack of consistency as far as genre goes.
Although the book is divided into seven parts, to me, it’s only two, roughly split in the middle and significantly different from each other. The first half I found fascinating. It’s about the value and longevity of friendship, love and loss, artistic aspirations, success and failure, regrets and hopes. And it’s also a satire of the literary world, which can be interesting for writers—both aspiring and seasoned—because it’s insightful and funny. Writer’s block, a yo-yo relationship between an author and his agent, the euphoria of being a celebrity, you name it.
The opening of the novel immediately grabs your attention: “After one hundred twenty-one days, the search was called off. The Coast Guard had stopped looking after three weeks, but the presumptive widow had paid for a private company to drag the entire Pacific Ocean, or as much of it as they could. With all hope lost, funeral arrangements were now under way. It was front-page news.”
The man lost at sea is Bill de Vallee, an internationally bestselling author of thrillers. His widow sends an invitation to his funeral to their long-time friend, Arthur Pfefferkorn. Arthur, an adjunct instructor of creative writing at a small college, is a writer too. But unlike Bill, he published only one book—a mildly-acclaimed, poorly sold literary novel. However, he considers himself a true talent, sneering at “mass-market entertainment,” such as the blockbuster bestsellers, whipped up by Bill. In fact, Arthur “has defined himself as a writer unwilling to sacrifice art for the sake of material gain: the anti-Bill.” No wonder, he goes by Art among his friends. Hence, the title of the first part of the novel: ART. Which, I think, stands for striving to write high-caliber literary fiction, as well as the novel’s protagonist.
As it turns out, Art is not devoid of jealousy over Bill’s great professional success with its lucrative benefits. And when the opportunity to taste the life of a star-author presents itself, he grabs it.
In the second half of the novel, the narrative changes drastically from a psychological drama to an espionage thriller. Not to give away spoilers, I’ll just say that the events mainly take place in a fictional, very backward country named Zlabia, somewhere in Europe. There’s a lot happening in it. Kellerman threw in a whole slew of elements of a thriller.
And that’s the problem. I usually like this genre, but, unfortunately, I found this one not too thrilling. Quite the opposite, in fact. The monotony of certain events, the unsavory characters, the excessive use of foreign phrases (in Cyrillic!), chase and capture all over again…
Maybe it’s just me, but this half of the book left me unmoved and, frankly, disappointed. I even thought of the irony of the novel’s title, Potboiler, which Kellerman intended for his characters’ books. Hmm, what about this book?
But the author’s idea of what Bill’s bestsellers essentially mean is brilliant. It made me wonder if it could be true, rather than the fruit of his imagination.
I also love the contrast between the first and the last chapters. Whereas the beginning is terse in style, the ending is highly detailed, symbolic, and lyrical. But both are very good.