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
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
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
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
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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