Review by Tom Rachman
A version of this review appeared in print on April 24, 2011, on page BR9 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Twelve-Step Masquerade.
The publishing world never promised great riches to its employees, but compensated with good parties. Conversation was lively, the nibbles were exquisite, the company was often exhilarating. And drinks were on the house.
The sour side of all those whisky sours was the number of talented editors and writers who found their lives commandeered by alcohol, including a striking number of American greats: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler and many more.
Tom Shone’s debut novel, “In the Rooms,” is set at this perilous intersection between books and booze, telling the story of a feckless literary agent, Patrick Miller, who finds himself masquerading as a recovering drunk to sign an author at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Patrick, an Englishman who left a less than superb career in London for similar mediocrity in New York, is in need of a prominent client when he spots the esteemed Douglas Kelsey, who has been out of view since having to return an advance for a book he could not finish. The agent trails Kelsey, finds that he’s headed to A.A., and so the charade begins.
Patrick’s situation is further complicated when he falls for Lola, another recovering addict. He faces an unusual quandary: how to admit that he’s not an alcoholic.
Central to Shone’s novel is his portrait of the uneasy Briton in New York. While other immigrant groups hold proud parades, he notes, “you never heard a peep out of the British. All we got was the chance to look vaguely apologetic on July 4.”
Shone applies wit to the literary world, too. The protagonist, for instance, divides men into two groups: those who “shrug off their hangovers and pound away at novels that got called ‘bleak,’ ‘brutal’ and ‘unflinching’ and the types of men whose job it was to make sure that ‘unflinching’ was spelled correctly on their dust jackets.”
Patrick is in the second group, yet he’s not the sort you’d trust to fix your spelling, or anything else. He is a bit of a mess.
This subject — young male editorial professional on substance-abuse spiral in Manhattan — owes a debt to “Bright Lights, Big City,” by Jay McInerney, who enjoys a cameo in the novel, regaling admirers with anecdotes at a swanky party. Nick Hornby (who is thanked in the acknowledgments) is also an influence, having mastered the character of laddish Englishman with a soft heart.
Shone comes into his own in his vivid descriptions of New York, evoking the admiration and alienation felt by an outsider in the megalopolis. Shone — a former film critic for The Sunday Times of London who has also written for The New Yorker and Slate, among other publications — presumably knows this perspective, as an Englishman living in New York himself.
However, the amusing tone present early in “In the Rooms” recedes as Patrick is drawn into the world of rehab, with its familiar language of regret, healing and redemption. Such confessional meetings are, like the psychiatrist’s couch, popular territory in novels and films, offering a pretext for characters to bare all. By now, this device and the rhetoric of addiction and recovery offer little that is fresh.
As for the famous novelist, Douglas Kelsey, when he enters more fully into focus, he turns out to be a disappointing character, an irritable, sour man who specializes in dreary political rants.
While Shone is an able writer, deft in visual descriptions and perceptive in his portrait of trans-Atlantic differences, “In the Rooms” drifts too far from these strengths.
His road-to-sobriety story, though, does underscore a change in the publishing world. “The days were long gone,” he writes, “when Manhattan’s literary set lost themselves in nights of marathon debauch.” It’s true: the false glamour of excess has faded. Perhaps this makes for a less romantic age. But at least the literary minds of our time are more likely to be preserved, not just pickled.
Review by Tom Rachman