July 27, 2017

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Losing the plot

Literary heist goes astray in Grisham's new thriller

John Grisham’s Camino Island opens with a daring heist, as thieves storm Princeton University and make off with the original hand-written manuscripts of the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. The search to recover this precious loot leads investigators to a small community on Camino Island, Fla., where a bookstore owner and his clique of writers delight in gossip, flirting, and shameless careerism.

At first, Camino Island promises to be an exciting thriller, spiced up with wicked social satire. But as the plot sags and the satire turns depressingly cynical, it’s not so much fun.

BILLY HUNT PHOTO

Grisham’s heroine Mercer Mann, cast as the thriller’s amateur detective, has little motivation.

A beautiful young writer, she is recruited by insurance investigators to spy on the Camino Island bookstore where, they suspect, the stolen treasure may be hidden.

Mercer has no experience as a spy and no interest in the case, but she accepts the risky mission because, as a blocked writer, she needs the money. In order to pay off her student loan, she’s been reduced to teaching freshman English, apparently a fate worse than possible death at the hands of ruthless criminals.

As Mercer infiltrates the Camino Island crowd, Grisham employs every known cliché about writers — "their insecurities and egos and jealousies," for example — and of course their desire for fame and fortune: "The popular authors — Amy, Cobb, and Andy — longed for critical acclaim, while the literary ones — Leigh, Jay, and Mercer — longed for greater royalties."

This obsession with success lies at the heart of American culture’s most destructive myths about creativity, and is no doubt the very cause of Mercer’s "writer’s block." But nobody mentions that; rather, the characters try to help her by offering ridiculous advice. One suggests she write westerns (Mercer replies that she’s afraid of horses). Another summarizes his ex-girlfriend’s idea for a novel and suggests Mercer use it, seeing as the ex-girlfriend burned her manuscript and committed suicide. Ugly.

Mercer, who seems to have wandered into this book by mistake, wisely turns her attention to memories of her late grandmother, who worked to protect the endangered loggerhead turtles on the island. Grisham’s best writing can be found in a gripping scene where Mercer observes a turtle laying eggs in the sand by moonlight.

But Mercer’s personal story is never developed well enough to compensate for the loss of tension in the main plot.The novel takes a long, meandering detour away from the arc of a proper thriller, delving into writing advice and then the almost-poetic realm of Mercer’s inner life, before it returns to the plot for a lacklustre climax and denouement.

Perhaps this strange shape is a sign of the author’s ambivalence toward his own project; he’s tempted by the lure of the literary, but only long enough to let it interrupt his best-seller for a while. And that’s his right — as one character advises Mercer, "Sell some books and then you can write whatever you want."

Fitzgerald’s drafts serve as perfect MacGuffins, ironic objects of desire in a novel that is resigned to accepting literature as a commodity to be judged by its market value.

The drafts are byproducts, pages Fitzgerald revised or deleted as he crafted his work. They are his discards; their worth lies in the lessons they reveal about writing — mainly that it’s hard work.

But for those obsessed with celebrity and wealth, they are glamorous fetish objects with the power to cause all the greed, lies, larceny, and betrayal that a thriller needs.

Catherine Hunter lectures on the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other literary matters, at the University of Winnipeg.

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