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Men in Black ()

I recalled seeing favorable reviews for this book a few years ago, so I picked it up and was confronted by a bone-chilling phrase--"Bestselling Author of Endless Love."  Now all I remember about Endless Love is that it was made into a supposedly awful (I acknowledge not ever seeing it) film starring Brooke Shields.  But Men in Black has one of those little "New York Times Notable Book of the Year" seals, that imprimatur of literary heft; so I figured I'd give it a try.

The novel bears no relation to the Will Smith movie of the same name.  Sam Holland is a serious novelist whose serious novels have garnered moderately positive reviews but minimal sales.  In order to pay his bills he has taken to churning out pseudonymous quickies like An Intelligent Woman's Guide to Pro Football and Traveling With Your Pet, which he finds embarrassing but remunerative.  But now, his latest bit of pulp, Visitors from Above, has tapped into UFO and millennial hysteria and is rocketing its way up the bestseller list.  Suddenly, the talk show circuit is clamoring for John Recliffe, his alias, and Sam finds himself dealing with the whackos of talk radio while pretending to be someone he isn't and defending a book that he doesn't believe in.  Meanwhile, his deeply disturbed son has discovered a letter from Sam's jilted lover and the son, who has inappropriate feelings towards his own mother, has disappeared, taking the letter with him.  While Sam's wife desperately searches for the boy, Sam is on the road hawking books, terrified that she'll find out about his infidelity.  At the very moment of his great success as an author, his life is falling apart and he's so embarrassed by the schlock he's written, that he can't even enjoy his moment of fame.

Much of this book really has the feel of an Oprah book for guys.  Sam after all is the sole party responsible for the complete hash he's made of his life and listening to him bitch about it for 300+ pages strains our patience.  Oddly enough, there are several plotlines that are raised briefly but then peter out or are forgotten--specifically his father is a frustrated wannabe actor and offers to portray John Retcliffe for him and after brief interludes with the wife and son they are pretty much dropped and we discover their fates in a hurried wrap up.  In fact, there does not appear to be any organic reason for the book to end when it does.  There's sort of the jarring sensation of a James Clavell ending, where you're reading along and all of a sudden a tsunami sweeps in and the story's over.  I ended up both glad to be rid of Sam, his family and friends, and curious as to what the heck had happened to the rest of the book; whole other sections are implied but curiously absent.  I'm not saying their inclusion would have improved the book, more that they take on the quality of an amputated limb, itching as if it were still there, but ever unscratchable.  But there is one thing that redeems all of these weaknesses--the book is pretty funny.  Not hah-hah funny, but funny in its wry treatment of today's pop culture and the profoundly odd dynamics of the modern family.

If you can get past the truly annoying characters and the prospect of yet another book with adultery as the main plotline, you're left with a mildly amusing and sometimes even thought-provoking read.  And to my great surprise, I found numerous references to Endless Love in the reviews I looked at and they generally appear to indicate that it is a terrific book.  Who'da thunk it?


Grade: (C+)


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