Frankie Abondonato, the narrator of James Magnuson’s hilarious new novel “Famous Writers I Have Known” is an orphan. He grew up in foster care and became a small-time crook trying to operate below the radar of the New York/New Jersey mafia. This works until a scam goes wrong, Frankie and his partner Barry are discovered, and Barry is murdered. Frankie grabs some cash and heads to the airport. The novel is set before 9/11, so he is able to buy a ticket to Texas and get on a plane. Once there he’s mistaken for the reclusive novelist V.S. Mohle, who was on his way to – but didn’t show up for – a lucrative three-month teaching residency.
Frankie notices someone move out of the boarding line – and that the person looks kind of like him. He figures out that Mohle, who wrote one book that is assigned in every high school English class in the country and almost nothing else, has decided to return to his isolated Maine island. Frankie takes full advantage of the situation, living in a nice house, teaching creative writing students, and persuading the head of the writing program to cash Mohle’s checks.
This should all work out for Frankie, except for two things. The program is funded by Rex Schoeninger, a novelist of prodigious breadth and length, who had a very public spat with Mohle a couple of decades earlier. Schoeninger craves literary recognition for his output and wants to make up. Frankie-as-Mohle wants money, and his con man instincts are aroused by Rex’s needs. He has to get through a couple of gatekeepers, including Rex’s irascible assistant and even crankier cook, but Frankie’s skills at reading people are top-notch, and he manages it. The same skills make him a fairly successful teacher to the creative writing students.
We all need recognition, and perhaps that’s the heart of the con man’s artistry: he gives us what we want. What we do with the harsh lesson is up to us. Magnuson has been head of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the university of Texas and clearly knows his stuff (the head of Magnuson’s fictional writing program is duped as thoroughly as everyone else in this story). What’s particularly skillful in this novel is how well Magnuson conveys Frankie’s persona. Of course, as he says, Frankie tells stories; that’s what con men do. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that novelists do as well – but since we are holding a book (or e-reader) in our hands we know we are being asked to suspend disbelief.
The main problem for Frankie is keeping the mounting number of lies straight. He lives in hope that the goons who killed Barry won’t find him in Texas, and of course his impersonation depends on the real Mohle remaining in Maine. Naturally, things all come crashing down – and Magnuson brings this novel to a satisfying and credible conclusion. What’s your favorite moment? Let us know in the comments.
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