Thursday, September 16, 2010

A book review wherein I decline to explain the plot

I can't tell you how many books have intrigued me with their opening pages. The undertone of menace in Coraline, the odd intellectualism of The Puttermesser Papers, the sprawling historical opening of Empire Falls, the comedy of England, England. But these books, and too many others, have something in common: they don't live up to their potential. I would say that in general I've found this problem to be one of halves. The first half of the book is full of whatever elusive promise makes me embark on it in the first place, whether it's menace or humor or any other quality. But too often the plot, in particular, derails, becomes something too violent or crass or just plain anticlimactic. Looking back over the first half of the book, I wonder where things went wrong.

The Thieves of Manhattan is not this kind of book. I can't say it is my favorite book, because it's not; in fact, it may be my least favorite of the ones I have wound up reviewing here. But it does have a distinction that is, to me, remarkable: its second half is better than the first.

I read this book in roughly two chunks (Boltbus down to Philadelphia; Boltbus back) so I was in an ideal position to notice such things. The first half (the plot of which I will explain) is unremarkable. The protagonist, Ian, is a dead-end short story writer working in a cafe, feeling jealous of his more-successful girlfriend, making fun of the fakery of celebrity memoirs, most notably the prison confessional Blade by Blade. It's this last trait that cracks Ian's world wide open: a mysterious well-dressed stranger, ostentatiously reading BbB in the cafe and dropping twenty-dollar bills in the tip jar, has a proposition for him. Will he take the stranger's unpublishable novel (too much old-school adventure plot, too little character development) and pretend it's a memoir of events that happened to him? Ian demurs, but the stranger, with his unerring talent for ferreting out the truth, knows he will take on the project.

And what happens when Ian accepts the project forms the second half of the book, which I won't say much about here, because to tell you about it would ruin the pleasure you'll get from reading it yourself. Let's just say that the truth and fiction get mixed up and spun around in a variety of truly unexpected ways, while our main character breaks out of his pathetic existence and becomes a new man, though not without regrets.

Thieves brought me back to my eighth-grade days--or, I should say, nights--of reading Great Expectations and Harry Potter under the covers well past any reasonable bedtime, caught up in the manic incredible plot-twisting pacing. Read Thieves if you have a free afternoon, or a night where you don't have to be anywhere the next morning. It won't take you long, and if you are any fan of heists or mysteries or sudden twists of fate, I suspect you won't regret it.

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