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Table of Contents
About The Book
In this charming, clever, and darkly satiric novel set at a writers’ conference, one man finds himself caught in a whirlwind of literary pretention, a suspect in a criminal investigation, and hopelessly in love with a woman who thinks he’s someone else.
Mistaken for a famous but reclusive author of the same name, lonely Shriver attends a writers’ conference at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Completely unfamiliar with the novel he supposedly wrote and utterly unprepared for the magnitude of the reputation that precedes him, Shriver is feted, fawned over, featured at stuffy literary panels, and barely manages to play it cool. Things quickly go awry when one of the other guest authors suddenly disappears and Shriver becomes a prime suspect in the investigation. Amidst eager fans, Shriver must contend with a persistent police detective, a pesky journalist determined to unearth his past, and a mysterious and possibly dangerous stalker who seems to know his secret. But most vexing of all, Shriver’s gone and fallen in love with the conference organizer, who believes he’s someone else.
When the “real” Shriver (or is he?) appears to claim his place among the literati, the conference—and Shriver’s world—threaten to unravel.
Filled with witty dialogue, hilarious antics, and a cast of bizarre and endearing characters, Shriver is at once a touching love story, a surreal examination of identity, and an affectionate tribute to the power of writing.
Somewhere between takeoff and landing, Shriver had lost his ability to read. Floating high above the clouds in the American Airlines Dash-8 twin-propeller plane, row nine, seat A, he gazed down upon the handwritten pages from which he planned to read at the conference, and his eyes failed him. The words blurred and merged together, the little blue letters piling up into one thick mass of ink. He blinked, and blinked again. He took off his glasses, retrieved a handkerchief from his coat pocket, and wiped his eyes. He looked at the stitched letters embroidered on the handkerchief—CRS, clear as day—then back at the page. The words remained unreadable. He took another sip of whiskey and cola, let the sweet concoction glaze his throat. That’s better. He peered out the window, and everything came back into sharp focus. The clouds shone white with highlights of pale blue. Miles below, service roads divided the flat prairie into vast brown squares. Shriver looked back to the page, but the words again began to collide with one another. He turned to the corpulent lady next to him, who sat sleeping with her head resting atop her voluminous bosom. The details of her fleshy face were clearly defined, down to the individual black whiskers above her lip. Back to the page: a blur. He grabbed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and opened to random pages. THE TEN BEST GOLF COURSES IN THE US . . . SHOPPING FOR ANTIQUES IN SAVANNAH . . . MALLS OF AMERICA. He shut his eyes and tried to breathe.
Six months earlier, there had been a letter. Dear Mr. Shriver, it began beneath the letterhead of a small liberal-arts college located in the middle of the country, As coordinator of ——— College’s annual writers’ conference, I would like to officially invite you to attend this year’s event as one of our featured authors.
At this point, Shriver had had to reexamine the envelope to make sure the letter was not intended for someone else. But there was his name, his address, all correctly labeled. Very strange.
Though your work has been controversial, even divisive, my colleagues have decided that you would be a valuable addition to this year’s event, especially since the theme of this, our thirtieth anniversary as one of the country’s premier literary conferences, will be LITERATURE AS CONFRONTATION. The consensus is that few living writers would be more appropriate to grace our stage this year than you and the other invited guest authors.
There followed some details about the event, including an outline of what would be expected of him: a one-hour reading, a panel discussion, an informal meeting with students from the university. Of course, the letter continued, in between these scheduled events you will be free to attend readings and panels by our other featured authors, and to enjoy the many planned receptions.
The letter had been signed, Best wishes, Prof. Simone Cleverly, and was accompanied by a self-addressed stamped envelope to be used for Shriver’s reply. And there was a handwritten postscript: I understand you do not have a telephone, Professor Cleverly wrote in a sensible, ruler-straight cursive, and so we are left this old-fashioned, and somehow appropriate, channel of communication—namely, writing. Nevertheless, if you have any questions, please feel free to call.
Shriver had immediately read the letter twice more, then again. He set the letter down on the bed, which was where he read all his mail, and stroked the furry neck of his trusty tuxedo cat, Mr. Bojangles. Who would take the trouble to play such a strange practical joke on him? he wondered. He thought of his old friend Cecil Wymanheimer, who had once arranged a date for him with a rather convincing transvestite—but wasn’t poor Cecil dead? Or it could have been Chuck Johnson, Shriver’s mischievous old college roommate. Though he hadn’t spoken to Chuck in at least twenty years, this definitely was the type of tomfoolery his friend would go in for. There was the time, as a bachelor party gag, Chuck had ferried Shriver around town to various bars and strip clubs, getting him drunker and drunker, until some off-duty police officers Chuck had hired “arrested” Shriver on charges of lewd and lascivious behavior. Hilarious! Yes, only Chuck Johnson was capable of such chicanery.
The reason Shriver was so suspicious of the invitation was that he was not a writer at all. He had never written any books, had never written a page of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama—he had never even written a screenplay. The only writing he was capable of was the occasional fan letter to his favorite newscaster, Tina LeGros, of the Channel 17 Action News Team. Dear Ms. LeGros, he wrote just last week, Just a brief note to express my admiration for the way you conducted yourself during last evening’s interview with our less-than-forthcoming mayor. He was very proud of these letters, some of which ran to several handwritten pages—one went on for seven, inspired by Tina’s ill-conceived change of hairstyle from an attractive, shoulder-length shower of blond to one of those stiff, helmetlike do’s that all the lesser female newscasters favored—but Shriver was definitely not a writer.
Nevertheless, to show he was a good sport, he scribbled his acceptance on a sheet of legal paper, stuffed it into the envelope, and mailed it off. Dear Chuck, he wrote, It will be my pleasure to attend your prestigious conference. I only hope I do not disappoint you. To his surprise, a few weeks later he received more information about the conference, as well as round-trip air tickets. We are pleased that you will be able to attend, “Professor Cleverly” wrote in an accompanying note. And don’t worry about disappointing us—your mere presence will be a great victory for the conference. In a postscript she added, I’m not sure who “Chuck” is, but we are absolutely thrilled about this.
Would Chuck Johnson go to such lengths? Whoever was behind this, Shriver thought at the time, was certainly resourceful and determined.
When he opened his eyes aboard Flight 1010 and looked again at the sheaf of paper in his hands, the words once more crumpled and folded in on themselves. He finished his drink and rolled an ice cube around his mouth to suck up the last of the whiskey. He wiped his forehead with the handkerchief and gazed out the airplane window. Just a few feet away a propeller whirred invisibly. Down below, clouds floated on the air like shaving foam on water. Some resembled animals—a duck, a sheep, a sleeping cat. That one there looked like the face of his ex-wife, with her typical expression of impatience. He felt a deep, burning sense of shame as she glared at him from a mile away, mocking him. He had considered sending her a card, telling her about the conference—he even wrote one out, using a nonchalant tone to inform her that he had been invited as a guest to a prestigious literary event—but then he remembered he didn’t know where she lived, and he threw the note away. Besides, she would never have believed him. You’re no writer, she would say in that voice that could cut a diamond in half.
He pressed the overhead button, and moments later, a flight attendant arrived wearing an expression of amused inconvenience.
“May I order another whiskey and cola?” Shriver asked.
There had been little correspondence from Professor Cleverly in the intervening months. She wrote once to inform him that she had ordered copies of his book—a novel Shriver had never even heard of—to be sold at the conference, and expressed hope that he would make himself available to sign them. Then just last week he’d received a brief note from her reminding him that someone would be dispatched to pick him up at the airport, and that if he had any trouble traveling—any delays or other unforeseen problems—he should call her immediately at the number provided. That’s when Shriver finally began to realize that this may not be a hoax at all, but some huge misunderstanding.
Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him. What should he do? He’d committed to attending, and had even been sent what looked like genuine airline tickets. He checked the date on the itinerary—just three days away!
At that point he’d decided to write a letter to Tina LeGros about this peculiar situation. As co-anchor of the Channel 17 Action News Team she had seen it all—political scandals, extreme weather conditions, serial killings; maybe she could help. He fluffed up his pillows and sat up in his queen-size bed. After shooing away the ever-curious Mr. Bojangles, he set a legal pad of yellow paper on his lap and stared up at the water mark on the ceiling. Dear Ms. LeGros, he started, I seem to have found myself in something of a pickle.
After a few more lines, however, he grew bored, and sat staring up at the water mark, which had been on the ceiling since the rainy day his wife walked out on him. He stared and stared, thinking about what a real writer—a writer expected to present his work to a large crowd, a writer like this Shriver fellow—would make of such a water mark. He crumpled up his letter to Tina LeGros. Then he wrote “The Water Mark” at the top of the next page. He stared at the ceiling some more. After a while, he wrote, “The water mark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.” He went on to describe the unique aspects of the mark, surprised to find that he enjoyed setting down his thoughts and ideas on paper. He wrote tentatively at first, in small fits and starts, but after a while he found a rhythm and was unable to stop until many hours later, exhausted and hungry. He woke up the next day and the same thing happened. The words seemed to flow out of him, as if he were a natural writer. This had continued right up through yesterday, when he achieved a sort of fever pitch as his story raced to its climax. At midnight last night he’d scribbled the words The End, then collapsed. Mr. Bojangles, freed from his banishment to the far side of the mattress, climbed onto his chest, curled up, and fell asleep.
The next morning, at precisely six o’clock, Shriver awoke to a knocking at the door. He pulled on a robe, padded across the apartment, and peered through the eyehole to see a tall bearded man staring back at him.
“Yes?” Shriver, still half-asleep, said through the door.
“Airport,” the man said in a strange accent. Ear-porrit.
Then Shriver remembered: the conference. He considered sending the man away, telling him he had the wrong address—the wrong man—but then he recalled the story he’d written. “The Water Mark.” He picked up the stack of paper and stared down at the dense blocks of words, some of them crossed out, with arrows and asterisks and question marks scrawled across the pages. He had written this. And it had been fun. Exhausting too, but in a good way. He hadn’t felt so consumed by something since . . . he couldn’t remember. Was this what it felt like to be a writer? he wondered. What if he . . . ?
“Sir?” the man said from the other side of the door.
“Be right there,” Shriver said, and before he could change his mind he quickly threw on some clean clothes and rummaged through his closet for the suit jacket he hadn’t worn in . . . how long? Then he stuffed a few things into an old suitcase, poured a mixing bowl full of dry cat food, and lifted up the toilet seat for Mr. B. to drink from the bowl.
“Don’t fret, my little friend,” he said, patting the cat on his furry head. Shriver couldn’t remember ever leaving Mr. B. alone. He got onto his knees and squeezed the cat close. Mr. Bojangles purred. “I’ll be back before you know it,” Shriver told him as he poured an extra layer of litter into the cat box.
Lastly, he folded the pages of his story and slipped them into his jacket pocket.
When Shriver opened the apartment door, the airport driver, whose dark bushy beard did not at all match the color of his graying hair, grabbed the suitcase and made for the elevator.
Meanwhile, Shriver searched in his pocket for his keys. He could not find them in his pants, nor in his suit coat. He went back inside and stepped over the cat, who sat at the threshold, already awaiting Shriver’s return. He rummaged around the apartment, looking under the piles of clothes on the bed, peering into crowded drawers and cupboards, eventually tossing everything onto the floor in a fruitless attempt to find his keys. He sat in a chair and tried to recall the last time he’d used them. He could not remember, but it couldn’t have been that long ago.
“Sir?” the bearded man said again from the hallway.
“Yes, yes,” Shriver said, giving up. He would just have to leave the door unlocked.
As they waited for the elevator, he could hear Mr. Bojangles mewing behind the closed—and unlocked—door. He covered his ears against the sad and pathetic sound until the elevator finally arrived.
When they reached the ground floor, Shriver did not recognize the building’s main lobby. Had that mirrored wall been there the last time he went out? That sofa and matching chair near the entrance? The night doorman, still on duty at this early hour, looked at him and the bearded man with his battered old suitcase as though they were burglars leaving the scene of a crime. He must be new, Shriver thought, never having seen the doorman before.
“When did they put up those mirrors?” Shriver asked.
“Those?” the doorman said. “They’ve been there for as long as I have.”
“Really?” Shriver wondered how he could have missed them. “Oh, will you please inform Vinnie”—the afternoon doorman—“he need not bring me my mail for the next few days?”
The doorman continued to scrutinize him closely. “Your name?”
“Why, I’m Mr. Shriver.”
The doorman, dressed in a shabby maroon uniform one size too large, peered at him quizzically.
“Six F!” Shriver clarified.
He debated whether or not to inform the doorman that his apartment door had been left unlocked, but given the man’s suspicious demeanor, he decided against it.
“Oh!” the doorman exclaimed. “Mr. Shriver. Of course.”
The doorman gestured dramatically, like a master of ceremonies on a stage, toward the revolving door. Through the glass Shriver could see a rusty old town car parked at the curb. The bearded man carried the suitcase out the door.
Out on the sidewalk a fresh predawn breeze cooled Shriver’s face. The street looked very different compared with his view from his sixth-floor apartment window. Billowy trees blotted out the slowly lightening sky, forming a pleasant green canopy over the cars parked up and down the block. At this early hour, the only sound was the rustle of leaves and the far-off hum of highway traffic. The bearded man grunted as he hoisted the suitcase into the town car’s open trunk.
“Have a nice trip, sir,” the doorman said, tipping his cap.
The bearded man slammed the trunk shut, then opened the rear door with a flourish. Shriver climbed into the backseat. The driver stood on the sidewalk for several minutes, talking with the doorman. Shriver strained to hear them through the closed car window. The two men laughed and shook their heads, giving Shriver the distinct impression they were talking about him. Then the driver climbed in behind the wheel, started the car, and pulled into the street. Moments later, they merged onto the heavily trafficked highway.
Shriver sat back and watched the city flash by, lit by the red-orange rays of the rising sun. He could not recall the last time he’d been in an automobile speeding down a highway like this. After a while, he noticed that the vehicle seemed to be moving independently of the steering wheel. The driver constantly turned the wheel left, then right, just to keep the car going in a straight line. Nevertheless, he was able to maneuver the decrepit vehicle like a getaway driver, weaving in and out of traffic with only inches to spare.
At the airport the driver refused to accept any money for the ride, not even a tip. “All taken care for,” he said several times in his thick accent, bowing reverently, then he climbed back in behind the wheel and tore off, leaving Shriver amid a swirl of travelers with their huge piles of luggage and golf bags. Car horns blared; airplanes shrieked overhead. It was all a little overwhelming, but with the aid of a uniformed steward he managed to check his suitcase and receive his boarding passes. He then proceeded to the security checkpoint, where a guard asked him to remove his shoes before waving him through a metal detector. As Shriver walked through the machine a bell went off. He was ordered to go back, take off his belt, and place any keys or coins in a little plastic bowl.
“What’s that?” The guard pointed at the bulge in his jacket.
“That’s just some papers.” Shriver pulled out the story he had written. The guard ordered him to place the manuscript in a plastic tub for X-raying.
“But it’s just paper.”
“I don’t care if it’s the Bible,” the guard said, holding out the plastic bowl.
Shriver set his story down and watched as the guard pushed it through the machine. He then stepped through the metal detector. This time no bell rang. He stood off to the side and watched as two security agents peered at the ghostly image of his story on the little monitor. One of them pointed at the screen, and the other one laughed.
From there the first leg of his journey progressed fairly smoothly, except for some alarming turbulence during the ascent. Once the plane had reached its cruising altitude, Shriver downed two cocktails in quick succession and managed to relax and catch up on his sleep, resting so soundly that he did not wake up until the plane had landed and parked at the gate. Then, in order to make his connecting flight, he had to navigate the enormous Airport of America from Terminal B to Terminal F. En route, he passed fast-food restaurants, bars, clothing stores, bookshops, a pet store, ice cream stands, toy stores, and a massage parlor. He found it difficult moving among so many people. At one point he had to sit down and collect his breath. But he managed to find the correct gate on time and board the second, much smaller aircraft without incident.
When the flight attendant finally brought his cocktail, Shriver shut his eyes and took a long, slow sip. A warm wave rolled down his throat and into his belly. He sighed, licked his lips, then glanced at the pages again. The words were a train wreck.
He turned to the lady beside him, who was now awake and eating from a container of chocolate-covered nuts.
“Excuse me,” he said, touching her pudgy elbow. “Ma’am?”
She turned and took in the empty miniature bottle of whiskey on his tray table. “Do you need to use the lavatory?” she asked, and commenced the elaborate preparatory motions necessary to remove herself from her seat.
“No, thank you,” Shriver said. “I was just wondering if you could do me a favor.”
She stared at him.
“I was wondering,” Shriver continued, “if you can read this.” He held out the pages.
She looked at them suspiciously. “You want me to read that?”
“No, I don’t want you to read it. I just want you to tell me if you are able to read it. Is it legible?”
She tilted her head to see the top page more clearly.
“Is it comprehensible?” Shriver asked.
She squinted. “Well, the handwriting is pretty sloppy.”
“But you can decipher it?”
Caught up in the assignment now, she set the tip of a finger on the top of the page, leaving a tiny smear of chocolate on the paper.
“ ‘The Water Mark.’ ”
“Yes, that’s right,” Shriver said.
“ ‘The water mark appeared on my ceiling . . . on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.’ Is that right?”
“Thank you very much.”
“Can’t you read it?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m just having some trouble with my eyesight. Getting old, I guess. Thank you again.”
“Say,” the lady said, her eyes narrowing, “are you that writer? The one who’s speaking at the conference?”
The day had gone so quickly that Shriver had not had time to worry about the moment he would have to take on the role he’d so impulsively decided to assume, but here it was.
“Yes!” the lady exclaimed, all smiles now, her cheeks breaking into dimpled slabs of dough. “I recognize you from your picture!”
“It’s in the brochure. Here.”
She reached under the seat into a large, bulky shoulder bag of the kind woven by Guatemalan peasants and produced an envelope-sized brochure for the conference. On the cover were photos of the various featured authors.
“That’s you!” the lady said, pointing to a murky black-and-white photograph. “Oh, this is very exciting!”
“May I see that?” Shriver reached for the brochure. In the photo a man sat on an armchair in front of thick, pale curtains. The chair looked vaguely familiar, Shriver thought, but the man barely resembled him. He was much younger, with a full head of dark hair and a taut jawline.
“Must be an old photograph,” the woman said. “But I can tell it’s you from the eyes.”
Shriver peered closely at the subject’s face. The eyes, it was true, communicated a certain sadness.
“It’s the only picture I’ve ever seen of”—and here the woman made dramatic air quotes—“the mysterious Shriver.
“I come to the conference every year,” she went on. “I’m also a writer. Oh, not like you, of course, not nearly so talented and interesting. I write romance novels, mostly, but I have this one project, a memoir, that I’m trying to publish.”
Shriver opened the brochure to the brief biographies of all the featured writers. Under Shriver’s name it said:
One of America’s most controversial authors, Shriver burst onto the literary scene twenty years ago with his bestselling novel Goat Time. Though he has yet to publish a follow-up novel, he remains one of our most revered chroniclers of the American absurd.
“I have a very interesting story to tell,” the lady continued as she searched through the many items in her bag. “I was once involved in a sort of harem with this biker from Utah. I spent a couple years there, doing drugs and participating in sex orgies.”
“Yes,” Shriver said, still reading:
His long list of honors includes the Federal Book Award, the Outer East Coast Inner Critics Circle Award, the Publishers Prize, and numerous others.
“I have copies of the manuscript, if you’d like to take a look. Maybe you could help me find a publisher.”
She thrust a two-inch-thick bound manuscript into Shriver’s hands. On the cover, in large letters, was the title, Harem Girl: My Life as a Sex Slave, A Memoir by Delta Malarkey-Jones.
“Don’t worry,” Delta Malarkey-Jones said, “it’s a quick read. I would say I hope you’re not offended by graphic sex, but I figure you’re probably not, so . . .”
She pulled from her bag a beat-up hardcover book. On the cover was a crude drawing of a satyr. “I think it’s refreshing to read your work,” she said. “Hardly anyone writes about real stuff like you do.”
“You know—the raw stuff.”
“May I see that?”
“Maybe you could sign it!” she gushed as she handed the book over.
This was his first glimpse of the book written by this apparently famous Shriver fellow. He had not patronized bookstores or libraries for many years because the smell of all that slowly rotting paper produced in him the urgent need to go to the bathroom. It was an instantaneous reaction, and very unpleasant.
He opened the book to the inside back cover, handling the pages gingerly, in case the sudden urge to defecate came upon him. There was no author photograph. The brief biographical note stated, simply, that the author lived on the East Coast.
Delta Malarkey-Jones produced a fine-point pen. “I would really appreciate it.”
Shriver turned to the title page. He thought it very odd that he’d never heard of this famous author with whom he shared a name.
“You can just put ‘To Delta,’ plus whatever you feel like.”
Shriver wiped his brow and wrote, To Delta, she of row 9, seat B, on this day in May, then he signed his name with a flourish.
“Thank you so much!” She held the book aloft. “One of these days I’m going to finish it too. Hey—I can’t wait for your reading day after tomorrow!”
“That’s very nice of you to say.” Shriver had hoped that no one would show up to his reading. Now it turned out this Shriver fellow was quite famous and sought-after. A tiny moth of anxiety fluttered inside his chest. He closed the book and handed it back.
“You can hold on to my memoir,” she told him. “I have a bunch. My address is on the front.”
“Oh, thank you.” Shriver squeezed the thick manuscript into the seat pocket in front of him. “I’ll read it later, if you don’t mind.”
“Are you staying at the Hotel 19? Most of the writers stay there during the conference. I take the same room every year. I reserve it months ahead of time. Room twenty. In case you need to find me,” she added, winking.
“Uh, I’m not sure where I’m staying.”
She grinned. “I’d love to discuss those scenes with you.”
“You know—the sex scenes in your novel. They were very . . . imaginative.”
“Oh,” he said. “Thank you.”
After a moment, during which his neighbor settled back into her seat with a series of contented sighs, Shriver turned his attention back to his story. He glanced quickly at the first page, then looked away. For that split second the words appeared to be arranged normally. He breathed a little easier. He had to get this situation under control. There might be a lot of people at the reading, if this lady was any indication. He looked back at the first page, this time for several seconds before turning away. Again, the lines of script were legible—poorly handwritten, perhaps, but legible. There was the title, “The Water Mark,” and, below that, the first line: “The water mark appeared on my ceiling on the rainy day my wife walked out on me.”
Up to this point the flight had been quite smooth, but now, as the airplane skimmed just above the clouds, the fuselage began to shimmy and rattle like an old jalopy. To distract himself, Shriver turned once more to the pages in his hand. Immediately the words appeared to melt, as if the ink were wax over a flame, dripping down the page and onto his lap. He checked his watch. The numbers were as clear as the clouds outside his window. Less than forty-eight hours until his reading. As if it wasn’t going to be difficult enough to convince all those people he was a writer!
While the plane bumped over air pockets, the flight attendant weaved down the aisle collecting empty bottles and cans.
“May I have another?” Shriver asked, holding out the empty mini-bottle of whiskey.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the attendant said. “We’re going to be landing soon.”
The airplane then descended right into the clouds, the window went white, and the cabin started to slide from side to side. Shriver gripped the armrests and concentrated on the VACANT sign outside the forward lavatory.
Then, as it emerged beneath the clouds, the plane ceased its shuddering. The ground below lay as flat as a door on its side, from horizon to horizon, spotted with ponds that reflected clouds and patches of blue. Off in the distance Shriver could make out a small town, not much more than a cluster of low buildings and a water tower. The airplane tilted toward a large asphalt X in the middle of the prairie. Shriver’s ears ached from the pressure. He rubbed the tender spots where his jawbone attached to his skull and swallowed deeply. His throat burned as a whiskey belch made its way up his esophagus. Before he knew what was happening, a freshly plowed field and then a strip of tarmac rose up to meet the wheels of the plane, and with a bump and slide, they were on the ground. A pleased Delta Malarkey-Jones immediately began to collect her many articles from beneath the seat in front of her, including her bag, a jacket, a floppy hat, and a paper sack full of snacks.
“Don’t forget my manuscript!” she reminded him, pointing to the seat pocket.
“Oh, I won’t.” He placed the epic on his lap along with his own papers.
The plane rolled toward the terminal and lurched to a stop.
“I hope to see you around,” Ms. Malarkey-Jones said as she leaped to her feet and started to remove items from overhead. “Remember: Hotel 19, room twenty.”
The exit door swung open and the passengers shuffled up the aisle. Shriver rose unsteadily to his feet and entered the line. All the whiskey had settled in his legs. Wobbling a little, he gingerly disembarked onto a metal stairway that led down to the tarmac.
Looking up, he saw that the sky here was enormous, dwarfing everything beneath it. The clouds seemed thousands of miles wide, with vast swatches of blue in between. As for the land, it stretched flat and unbroken all the way to the horizon. Even the little airport was squat and low to the ground. He waved away a mosquito buzzing at his ears.
Shriver wondered who would be at the gate to meet him. For all he knew, Chuck Johnson would spring out from behind a potted plant and shout, Surprise! But he had the feeling his old friend was nowhere near this place. The letters from Professor Cleverly, the free airline tickets, that woman on the plane—it was too elaborate even for Chuck. These people really thought he was Shriver the Writer! As he walked across the tarmac toward the doors, he concentrated on the task of becoming someone else, and wished for the first time that his gastrointestinal system were at least able to endure the library long enough for him to have read this Shriver fellow’s work.
What had he been thinking?
Passing through a glass door into the air-conditioned gate area, where a crowd awaited returning friends and loved ones, he cursed his decision to come here, to leave the safe confines of his apartment, to leave the unconditional love of Mr. Bojangles, the dedicated service of Vinnie the Doorman and Blotto, the delivery boy from the local grocery store. He could have been home right now watching the afternoon edition of the Channel 17 Action News and napping on the patch of sun that fell across his bed at this time every day. Instead, he was in this strange, aggressively horizontal land, pretending to be someone else entirely, someone who was a genius, apparently, and infinitely more intelligent than he, albeit it with a dirty mind.
How can I worm my way out of this insane situation? he wondered. Perhaps he could avoid the person dispatched to retrieve him and exchange his return ticket for the next flight home. He decided right then and there that this was what he would do—he would go home to Mr. Bojangles—and so he started toward the main lobby and ticket counter.
But his path was blocked by a petite young woman wearing a shiny yellow slicker.
She offered her hand. “Mr. Shriver, I presume.”
She had long blond hair, nearly the same color as her coat, and thin lips painted ruby red. He thought she was about eighteen years old until he looked closer and saw the crow’s-feet at the corners of her large brown eyes. She looked the way he imagined Tina LeGros would look in person, without the stiff hair and pancake makeup and power suit.
“I’m Simone Cleverly,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied, taking her hand in his own. “And I am Shriver.”
Reading Group Guide
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When lonely Shriver receives a letter inviting him to attend a prestigious literary conference, he doesn’t realize he’s been confused for a famous, reclusive, Salinger-like author of the same name. He decides to attend and, once there, he is feted, fawned over, and featured at stuffy literary panels and readings by admirers who believe he is the famed novelist. Tensions begin to mount when one of the authors in attendance mysteriously goes missing, and the “real” Shriver (or so he claims to be) suddenly appears to stake his claim among the literati. The ensuing calamity forces Shriver to question everything he thought he knew, come face-to-face with his past, and fight for his future.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Shriver pokes fun at the pretensions of contemporary writing culture by satirizing the superficiality of literary conferences—however, do you think there can be value to conferences of this sort? Do you think the academic culture around writing, such as an MFA program or a conference like the one Shriver attends, is important, unnecessary, or somewhere in between?
2. Much of Shriver’s past is obscured, whether purposefully left out by the author or blurred in Shriver’s own mind. If you had to guess, how would you fill in the gaps of Shriver’s past life? Why do you think the author intentionally made Shriver’s history mostly a mystery?
3. So many of the characters in Shriver are heightened versions of real people, almost cartoonish in their buffoonery, right down to their very names (Professors Wätzczesnam and Cleverly, Delta Malarkey-Jones). Would you classify Shriver as satire in the classical sense, akin to Jonathan Swift’s work? How do you think exaggeration and hyperbole of character is projected by Shriver’s perspective, and how does it set him apart from those who surround him?
4. Shriver begins with the following H. L. Mencken quote: “A writer is always admired most, not by those who have read him, but by those who have merely heard of him.” Do you agree with this? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’ve pretended to have read a book that you actually haven’t? If so, why?
5. Discuss the impetus behind Shriver going to the conference, despite considering the invitation a mistake. Have you ever been mistaken for someone else, and gone along with it? Would you have done so in Shriver’s situation?
6. When Delta presents Shriver with an old photograph supposedly of himself, he struggles to see a resemblance. How much of one’s identity do you feel is self-made versus informed by one’s surroundings? How does Shriver struggle with his own identity as he is confronted with others’ opinions about him?
7. At a bar, Shriver sees the phrase, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as ever” scratched into the wood of a seatback in a booth. Why do you think the author chose this phrase, and why does Shriver encounter it at this particular moment? How do you relate to this phrase—does it ring true?
8. The protagonist of Goat Time is also named Shriver. Think about the three Shrivers that exist within the book—our protagonist, Goat Time’s protagonist, and the real Shriver—how do they coexist, in both reality and fiction?
9. Shriver’s life before the conference seems ruled by comfortable routine: soup, baths, and Mr. Bojangles. How is his preferred way of life disrupted by the chaos of the conference and the trauma of Gonquin Smithee’s disappearance, and how does it affect his creativity? How are his physical inhibitions (inability to read words, tummy troubles at even the smell of books) related to his writing of “The Water Mark,” and how is his creative flow slowly unstoppered? What most inspires creativity in your own life?
10. Who do you think is the real Shriver after all? Why?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Chris Belden is also a screenwriter. Imagine Shriver as a movie—devise a cast of famous actors to play the main characters, and even write a scene to act out among your group.
2. Famously reclusive authors include J.D. Salinger, Elena Ferrante, Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon, and more. Go around the room and list things you’ve heard about these or other enigmatic authors, or impressions you’ve had based on the cult of personality (or lack thereof) surrounding them. Then, read one of their books for your next meeting and do some research on them—how does your experience of their writing compare to your perception of them and the mystery that surrounds them?
3. At your next meeting, take a stab at being a writer yourself! Share a piece of your own writing with the group, and have others reflect on how your personal writing sheds light on your identity.
A Conversation with Chris Belden
You’ve taught creative writing through the Bronx WritersCorps in underserved areas, as well as at a maximum-security prison—how do your experiences there compare with Shriver’s experience at this writer’s conference, and with teaching a class of MFA students?
Teaching creative writing at a maximum-security prison is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done on a professional level. The students are enthusiastic, motivated, and grateful. I’ve always believed that writing can change your life, and with inmates it’s even more apparent than with “civilians.” These convicted criminals are learning to express themselves in a productive, nonviolent way. Teaching at the MFA level is obviously a different experience—for one thing, the students are allowed to leave the building when we’re done—but in some ways the two are remarkably similar: both sets of students share their writing for purposes of discussion, and in both venues we are trying to communicate story, feeling, character, mood, etc., through language. As for how this compares with Shriver’s experience, there’s not much overlap for me—except that, like Shriver, I am considered an authority (the “writer/expert”) in a teaching environment. Interestingly, I’ve become much more comfortable with this role in the classroom than I have in the outside world, where I still expect to be dismissed as a wannabe.
Why do we meet Shriver at this particular point in his life?
The simple answer is that, as in all dramatic stories, we start where things are beginning to change. As a writer—whether of fiction, creative nonfiction, plays, or screenplays—you have to ask yourself, “Why is today any different from any other day for my protagonist?” For Shriver, [this is] is the day he steps out into the world, when he pretends to be someone he doesn’t think he is, or could ever be. Everything is about to change for him—he just doesn’t know how.
You’re not only a writer, you also studied film and are a musician. How do these three art forms compare and contrast in your mind? How do you decide to tell a story through the format of a novel, versus that of a song or movie? How do they interrelate?
Not to be a smart-aleck, but the difference is mainly one of space and time. A song, like a poem or postcard, must communicate a story in a brief amount of time and words. A film, though it might be based on a script [that is] 120 pages long, is digested in two hours. A novel, in contrast, has all the time it requires to tell a story. The technical differences are there simply to accommodate the format. Rhyme and melody in a song help make up for the fact that the story is being told so quickly, without the kind of detail or nuance that a novel can have. A film script must consist mostly of action and dialogue—any psychological motivation must be shown via these two conduits instead of through the interior monologue that novels can use. In a novel the writer is free to do whatever he or she wants, which is both liberating and constricting (too much freedom can lead to a lack of focus). But [a] story is the common element in all three disciplines.
Though this is not your first novel, it is the first with a Big Five publisher in New York. How has your experience compared to Shriver’s, if at all?
Any time I am taken seriously as a writer, I feel like an imposter. In fact, the genesis of Shriver was a writers’ conference to which I was invited, at which I sat on panels, spoke to students, gave a reading, and was treated like a “real” writer. At the time I had self-published one book and had had a few stories accepted at small literary journals, and here I was sharing the limelight with a National Book Award–winner, a beloved poet, and the author of a couple of New York Times bestsellers. I was so discombobulated that I eventually created an alter ego, Shriver (which, of course, means “writer”), who really is an imposter in a similar situation. It’s ironic, to say the least, that it’s this creation that has garnered me the most success as a writer.
You yourself have an MFA in creative writing—where do you stand in the constant tug-of-war of whether it is necessary or even harmful to a young writer to attend an MFA program? What would you say to an aspiring young writer asking if he or she should consider attending a writing program?
First of all, strike the word “young” from the question because I have met many “older” people who have attended MFA programs, some of whom are very talented but have not previously had the opportunity to practice their craft and get their work seen. In any case, I think if you are serious about writing and want to improve your craft, an MFA program is an ideal environment to do so. Is it for everybody who wants to write? Of course not. Some lucky people already have trusted readers and a well-developed routine of writing, but many others would benefit from the structure of an MFA program. Like Tobias Wolff, I don’t believe you can teach a person to be a great writer—those people have an innate talent—but I do think you can teach a person to be a better editor and a better reader, and this might help turn a good writer into a great one. But most of all, an MFA program provides a community for writers. Writing is lonely, hard, and frustrating. If you have an opportunity to hang out with people in the same boat, it can inspire you to keep returning to that blank page, which is the hardest part of being a writer.
- Publisher: Touchstone (March 30, 2023)
- Length: 288 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501119392
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Raves and Reviews
"Chris Belden's Shriver is as hilarious and smart as Michael Malone's Foolscap, as wise and sympathetic as Stoner. Academic farces don't come any better."
– Richard Russo, Pulitzer-prize winning author of Empire Falls
"A send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity."
– Dani Shapiro, author of Slow Motion and Family History
“In Shriver Chris Belden has written a fast-paced, wildly inventive novel that is somehow both hilarious and thought-provoking. In fact, I couldn’t stop wondering when I last read a book so enjoyable.”
– Philip Schultz, Pulitzer-prize winning poet and founder and director of The Writers Studio
"A hoot, a farce about mistaken identity set at a writers’ conference where facile poets and pompous novelists declaim, carouse and, possibly, commit murder. In a style somewhere between Evelyn Waugh and Mel Brooks, Belden’s satire lampoons all things literary but also, amazingly, convinces us to care about the fools that these mortals be."
– Alan Davis, author of So Bravely Vegetative and Rumors from the Lost World
"Enjoyable...Shriver’s fear of being outed as an impostor rings true for any writer—wannabe or bona fide—who’s ever doubted their abilities."
"This picaresque and piquant satire of writers, academics, their quirky characters, and content-lacking conferences is reminiscent of David Lodge’s satiric spins on academe. Darkly comic, Shriver also reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s inversion of The Wizard of Oz in the movie After Hours—the obstacles, the quirky characters, the plot turns and pivots. Despite its ability to laugh at the writing world and its daffy denizens, Shriver nonetheless ultimately affirms the essential importance of the word."
– Joan Connor, author of History Lessons and The World Before Mirrors
"A man afflicted with a strange ocular disability and a decidedly quirky response to the smell of books falls prey to a case of mistaken identity (or is it imposter syndrome?) that hauls him well out of his comfort zone, delivering him to a world that is as odd as it is authentic. Chris Belden’s Shriver delivers intrigue, a cast of bizarre characters who are also somehow bizarrely believable, and moments of slapstick comedy that are laugh-out-loud funny—all the while exploring the deeply human need for meaning and connection. Read this book!"
– Elizabeth Hilts, author of Getting In Touch With Your Inner Bitch and Every Freaking! Day with Rachell Ray
“Oneof the most fun books I’ve read this year…With a cast of quirkycharacters, funny situations and clever writing, you’ll enjoy Shriver fromstart to finish.”
– Red Carpet Crash.com
“Shriver, to bereissued later this month by Touchstone Books, manages to be witty withoutpretense, absurd without hopelessness, a literary romp roiling with characterswho are simple yet evolved, endearing and funny. Best of all, they are fun tobe around.”
– Ben East, blogger at BenOnBooks
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