Adam Langer’s The Thieves Of Manhattan is pitched at an enormously specific audience, but those readers will do cartwheels if enough of them find the book. Langer, best known for a number of carefully nuanced close-ups on the young denizens of Chicago and New York, books that rarely leave the confines of so-called literary fiction, seems more playful in this novel, which purportedly contains any number of puzzles readers can solve at home. It starts in his comfort zone, and by the end, readers won’t blink an eye when the protagonist leaps to board an empty boxcar on a speeding train.
To a degree, Thieves is almost too clever for its own good. It’s packed with literary in-jokes, including an invented argot where bullets are hammetts, a whiskey is a faulkner, and a fine sports jacket is a gatsby. Every other lengthy number in the narrative is a Dewey decimal code for something or other, and the narrative is so pleased with its own postmodern ambitions that it rarely stops to make sure everything makes sense. Its events mostly hang together, but there’s a sense at the end that Langer is making it up as he goes along, staying one or two steps ahead of readers, like a great spinner of shaggy-dog tales.
Still, the book unquestionably works. The early passages will likely drive readers nuts, as hero Ian Minot mopes around New York, having slice-of-life adventures with his Romanian girlfriend and wondering why no one will buy his short stories, but Langer slyly reveals this to be part of a design, the reality that the book will use as a launchpad. When Minot meets a former publishing-house editor who’s tired of tiny short stories about small lives, and longs for books where the author starts with something from real life and then “hits the gas,” the whole opening section reveals itself both as Langer’s commentary on what’s currently in vogue in popular literary circles, and even, perhaps, his own prior work.
From there, the novel scoots through a variety of styles. The editor wants Ian to re-appropriate a novel said editor wrote years ago, one filled with gun battles, car chases, and treasure maps, a novel rejected by major publishing houses and agents for just being a well-told tale, rather than anything with redeeming literary value. Ian will read, memorize, and learn this novel backward and forward, rewriting it in his own style and internalizing its tale. And then he’ll try to pass it off as a memoir of his own life, based in things that really happened, but taking off in another direction. The editor is sure the book will sell and set the world on fire, and once that happens, Ian can reveal it as a fake to show the desperateness of the publishing industry. The editor is right.
Is this meant as a satire of the age of memoirs revealed as fakes? Is it a “realistic” work that gradually grows dafter? Or is it a postmodern attempt to examine how the novel has tried to escape its overplotted, barn-burner ancestors and become something more self-important? It flits between all of these styles, which is one of the best things about it. Sure, there are a few thin characters, and the twists piled upon twists grow tiresome, but as Langer seems to say with a smirk, does that matter when the story is so ripping good?