POTBOILER-cover-225x339

Arthur Pfefferkorn is a poor, middle-aged, divorced college professor who has been working for years on his sophomore novel. His first published book met with modest critical acclaim. He has begun countless iterations of the second attempt, none of which interest his agent. To his great consternation, his best friend through high school and college has risen to great popularity and wealth as the thriller/spy novel writer, William de Vallee. The novels are dreck, which infuriates Bill further. When Bill is presumed dead in a boating accident, Art attends his memorial service to pay his respects and reconnect with Carlotta, Bill’s wife and object of Art’s unrequited love. Art and Carlotta share a passionate weekend during which Art snoops in Bill’s study and finds an almost-finished spy manuscript. Art steals the manuscript, re-writes just enough to make it “his,” and publishes it to great acclaim and fortune.

At this point in the story, we find out that Bill was a spy, his novels containing “code” that transmit information to East and West Zlabia, enemies of the United States. By publishing his version of Bill’s novel Art gets drawn into the spy business and goes to Zlabia to find the kidnapped Carlotta. Hilarity and absurdity ensue, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s take on people in authority and power.

I found a lot to like in this book but not for reasons of “the story.” Jesse Kellerman does a wonderful send-up of the spy-book genre and makes many salient comments about the publishing industry in America. At times I found the book dragged (I listened to it on CD as opposed to reading it, which always affects my reaction to a novel), especially the second half when he goes to Zlabia to find Carlotta. The ending left me questioning what JK was attempting in Potboiler and who was his intended audience?

“Art” (Arthur) transmogrifies in the end, and I wonder if the point is that art cannot be churned out one book a year, year after year. I also wonder why this particular book has been nominated by Mystery Writers of America? Is Kellerman positing that it is a “mystery” why the genre is so popular when the books have become so formulaic and predictable?

As Art would say, a good writer knows when to shut up. Done.

On a scale of one to ten, this book ranks a 6.

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