Adam Langer’s The Salinger Contract explores the challenges, pitfalls and perils of making a living as a novelist. It’s a highly entertaining story, wildly implausible and yet completely addicting for the inventiveness, humor and lively prose style. Adam Langer is not only the author’s name but also the narrator’s name, in a quirky nod to those aforementioned challenges.
Narrator Adam is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, and former editor of a New York City literary magazine for which he interviewed famous authors. One of those authors was Connor Joyce, who reappears in Adam’s life at a Bloomington going-out-of-business Borders bookstore, where Connor is giving a reading of his new thriller. When Adam’s toddler Beatrice sees a photo of Connor, she’s frightened. Adam looks back on the moment and thinks it was a sign he should have heeded.
That’s because Adam becomes Connor’s confidante in a bizarre quagmire that involves writing a novel for a mysterious book collector, Dex Dunford. The wealthy Dex, guarded by a gun-toting Eastern European bodyguard, makes an offer Connor, on the down-swell of his best-selling career, can’t refuse. It’s the answer to his financial worries, worth millions, but the requirements of the agreement bond Connor to the nefarious book collector and his menacing henchman in ways that threaten Connor’s life and risk his marriage.
At the root of the agreement is the stipulation that no one can ever know about the unpublished book that will reside in Dex’s private library. And in good company, I might add. Dex’s collection includes original, unpublished manuscripts by Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Harper Lee.
The Salinger Contract is a send-up of the business of books — writing, publishing and collecting — grabbing us with the intrigue of a crime I can’t reveal because that would ruin the book’s cleverness. And the power of the story, its winning element, is that very cleverness. There’s never a dull moment, and book lovers will relish the plot twist of a book written solely for one reader. Adam considers: “Maybe the idea of trying to write for the masses was foolish and egotistical; maybe all that mattered was communing with one other human being.”
Adam is an inviting narrator. Connor is a colorful protagonist. But Dex wins the trophy for unusual provocateur. He’s sophisticated and yet creepy, in a Big Brother sort of way.
As Adam hears more and more about Connor’s story, things don’t add up and doubt sets in. Adam also begins to resent how Connor involves him — having to constantly hear about the high-stakes adventure — and yet, in the end, we come to learn there’s good reason for it. The story wraps up with the same entertaining surprise, energy and humor that make this book a blast to read.