November 4, 2016KR Reviews

On Amateurs by Dylan Hicks

Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 288 pages. $16.95.

What do you do if you yearn to become a famous author but have relatively little talent for writing? If you’re Archer Bondarenko, twenty-something scion of a Canadian family that made its fortune by selling sex toys and marital aids, the answer is simple: hire a more gifted aspirant to do the writing for you. But what if, unlike Archer, your family doesn’t own a pair of Range Rovers or a professional hockey team, and you can’t buy yourself a career? In that case, your path to artistic success might be more heavily rutted, even if you’re the lucky owner of writing chops that many crave but few possess.

That’s the central conceit of Amateurs, the witty and perceptive second novel by Dylan Hicks (Boarded Windows). Most of the characters in this large ensemble are trying to become artists, have thought about becoming artists, or have given up. And, as is often the case among artistic types, almost no one is happy. Hicks—who, fortunately for readers, has writing chops to spare—has fashioned a droll commentary about ambition among the would-be literati and has written some of the funniest prose in recent years.

In a prologue set in 1972, Marion Crennel, daughter of a well-to-do family that owns a paper board company, sits outside the family’s posh home in a “tassel-loafer suburb” of Chicago and tinkers with a novel that she says bears similarities to Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, the Alix Kates Shulman feminist novel published that year. But Marion is tired of “living parasitically, doing nothing with literature,” so when a friend suggests she move west to work on a film collective, she hides her manuscript in a box in the attic. And there it stays for forty years.

The rest of the novel goes back and forth from 2004 to 2011 among its many characters. One of them is twenty-six-year-old Buffalo native Sara Crennel, Marion’s niece, who, when we meet her, is in New York to write blog posts about the Republican National Convention. She fears that her writing is too stiff, “her sops to the accidental prose often found on blogs coming off like the outfits John Kerry wore for farm visits: the rolled-up oxford, the work boots diligently scuffed by a campaign aide.” This is not how she had hoped to use her MFA in creative writing.

While in the city, where she eats nothing but “laxative slices of floppy pizza,” she bumps into Lucas Pope, who was in her writing program but, to no one’s disappointment, dropped out after refusing to accept comments for revisions. In one of many spot-on character sketches, Hicks writes that Lucas “looked like a semifamous cartoonist, or like someone who would recognize a semifamous cartoonist.” Lucas has abandoned writing but has a “venture in the works with reusable bags.” By the end of the year, Sara moves in with Lucas. He’d like to be more than roommates, but the small matter of his British girlfriend, Gemma Pitchford, precludes him from acting on his desire.

Soon Sara meets John Anderson and his Winnipeg friend Archer. “He was twenty-eight,” Hicks writes of John, “but had the drawly air of a graying widower soliloquizing while rearranging the toolshed after church.” When Sara mentions that she likes the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Archer “flicked his wrist as if executing a ping-pong winner—‘overrated.’” His pomposity puts her off, especially when he discusses an essay he wrote about masturbation during the time of the Enlightenment. But even though she finds such talk “skeevy,” she’s still charmed enough that, when she’s making love with John that night, she fantasizes about Archer.

She made an impression on Archer, too, but for a different reason. In an email, he asks Sara to edit an essay he wrote. His prose is so “slipshod, graceless, and surprisingly pocked with grammatical and orthographical mistakes” that she rewrites the whole piece. That’s the sort of slap that might offend most writers, but, in one of the wry twists that makes Amateurs such a pleasure to read, Archer hires Sara to write for him full-time. By 2007, he’s paying her $170,000 a year to write book reviews, think pieces, essays, and his first novel, Eminent Canadians. Archer becomes a literary star. Sara, her friends think, is a literary washout. They don’t know that she has become an “improbably deep-pocketed Geppetto” who, as her relationship with Archer takes unexpected turns, faces a conundrum: she hates the anonymity but knows that, as Archer’s ghost writer, she’s doing the best work of her life.

She’s not the only one who’s artistically frustrated. In a parallel story set in 2011, a fortyish woman named Karyn, one of Archer’s distant relatives, lives in Minneapolis with her eleven-year-old son Maxwell. She’s divorced from a failed musician, works as an employee benefits specialist for a large retailer, and sleeps with a muscle-bound IT consultant who was “among other faults, libertarian and married” and who says “Roger that” when she suggests they adjourn to the bedroom.

Karyn is yet another would-be writer: Whenever she has a spare moment, she works on a pet project called “Untitled Play.” It is with some curiosity, then, that she receives an invitation to Archer’s wedding. He’s marrying Gemma, who calls Karyn to ask if she’d be willing to drive Lucas, now unemployed and living in Minneapolis, to the wedding. Karyn is hesitant at first but takes an instant liking to him—in one of the book’s few missteps, the initial dialogue between them is too flirty and forced for two people who have just met—and agrees to let him join them. The drive from Minneapolis to Winnipeg takes many surprising turns, among them Lucas’s realization that the material in the galley of Archer’s second book seems oddly familiar.

Many other complications enliven Amateurs, including John’s gig tending to the elderly Crennel patriarch and Lucas’s participation in a Jessica Rabbit porn site “on which he was a leading pen-named commenter.” The novel ends too neatly, but until then, Amateurs is nuanced and insightful. Occasionally Hicks’s witticisms fall flat, as when “contempt and superiority had slipped from [Sara’s] thoughts like subscription cards from drugstore Elles.”

But these passages are few. Most of the descriptions are not only beautifully crafted, but also offer astute observations about class and ambition. Hicks writes that Sara forces herself to overcome her shyness and show interest in others because “she didn’t have the reputation, beauty, wealth, or power to do so without talking.” Of his lack of accomplishment and status, Lucas says he felt “that he was three touchdowns behind at halftime.” One of the truisms that this wise, funny book reinforces is that the arts are a competitive arena in which to prosper, even for the privileged few who can buy an E-ZPass to success. As Archer dismissively tells Sara when she asks for joint authorship of his second book, “There’s millions of smart people.” Not a comforting thought, perhaps, but you don’t have to be a professional to recognize its legitimacy.

Michael Magras is a freelance book reviewer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His reviews have appeared in Minneapolis Star Tribune, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Iowa Review, and BookPage.