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Onyx reviews: Who's Killing the Great Writers of America? by Robert Kaplow

What a strange little book this is. It bills itself as a satire in the spirit of parody and burlesque. The cover art features a typed hit list on a rumpled sheet of typing paper, with the names of several best-selling authors crossed out and red ink spattering the page like blood. Most of the names will be familiar to readers and non-readers alike: Sue Grafton, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy and Stephen King.

The author's name sounds like a joke: Robert Kaplow, bringing to mind the sound of a firearm. The blurbs on the back cover are parodies of the parody ("Mercifully short," one reads. "A must-read for people who hate books," says another.)

Inside the covers, Who's Killing the Great Writers of America? is no less strange. Sue Grafton is traveling across Europe by train, suffering "Diarrhea on the Orient Express" (ha ha), when she encounters none other than comedian Steve Martin in full-tilt, wacky performance mode. He's dressed in clown's shoes and riffing jokes on everything the crime writer says, cackling like a madman. The parody starts kicking in when Kaplow pokes fun at Grafton's alphabetic series novel titles (She's working on AA is for Aardvark and is considering a long-term future where she might pen AAA is for Penlight Battery.)

But it doesn't stop with making fun of the external details of Grafton's career any casual fan might know. He dives into her head and dissects the state of her marriage and her relationship with her husband, which is where the book gets edgy and, perhaps, a little tacky. Kaplow's Grafton exhibits a free-floating lust for just about every male who crosses her path.

Kaplow uses Tom Clancy to launch barbs at John Le Carre and Eric Lustbader. However, having Clancy engage in rough sex with Ann Coulter feels like an easy, cheap shot. Kaplow's digs aren't limited to the literary establishment, either—he lampoons overseas call centers, the Bangor Daily News ("arguably the worst newspaper in America"), Makdi-Ell Sadr, the Ink Spots, George Bush and a host of others, all diligently listed in the front material, without apology. He even trots out potty humor by giving the Bangor newspaper reporter a naughty surname. 

As the title suggests, the great writers don't fare well. Grafton meets an untimely end at Reichenbach Falls, famously and significantly the site where Sherlock Holmes battled his nemesis to a temporary death. Steel and young literary author Curtis Sittenfeld have a grisly encounter with an acid-laced hot tub. Sittenfeld also suffers under Kaplow's scathing pen—he depicts her as someone who is self-conscious of her looks, wears clunky shoes and eats meals designed for two. Steel throws herself at Gerard Depardieu, who dashes from one romantic tryst to another, the stereotypical lady killer.

The book's protagonist, insomuch as there is one, is the bard of Bangor, Stephen King, who is obsessed with his place in the literary canon (his home security passcode is "Over 47 million King books in print") and with his Amazon sales rankings (How could a Stephen King novel...be up to 246 in six months?"). He's also a prisoner in his home—Kaplow has no issues with divulging the real street address of this Bangor residence—a lonely, impotent, neurotic agoraphobe. Asked by the media for a quote about the death of one of the famous writers, he demands that his blurb lead readers to a site where they can purchase the audio version of his National Book Award acceptance speech.

Kaplow's skill is in producing serviceable imitations of the writing styles of the authors he's parodying. The chapters featuring Danielle Steel read like steamy romances, ratcheted up several notches. Technological minutiae dominate the Tom Clancy chapters, and Kaplow distills the essence of the King's stylistic tics. Here again, though, he risks becoming tasteless by inventing a fictional rift between King and his wife, Tabitha. ("Stephen, you're just too crazy to live with. You want to write, and then y ou cut yourself completely off from the world? How f-ed up is that?")

King is certain that he's next on the killer's hit list—in fact, would be offended if he weren't. However, he ventures out of his self-imposed seclusion to track down his errant wife, a journey that takes him (naturally) to a remote island off Maine's coast. The finale pulls readers into a Twilight Zone that includes deceased French director Francois Truffaut and a strange proto-human with literature issues.

The book seems to want to say something about writing ("How many times can a writer reinvent himself?" a character asks King. "How many times should he need to?") and compulsion ("Oh Stephen, how can I repay you?" Danielle Steel gushes. "Stop writing," King responds.") The villain of the piece is a character enraged by the very act of writing itself.

The dust jacket copy calls the book a "hilarious send-up," but much of the humor is in questionable taste. Steve Martin was sufficiently displeased with his hyena-laughing buffoonish, homicidal depiction that his agent reportedly attempted to have the book's publication stopped. The book isn't half as funny as it wants to be, and may make some readers more than a little uncomfortable.

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