Andrew Lipstein, Last Resort (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 304 pp. Hardcover, $27.00.
No, the title Last Resort doesn’t refer to a Vegas casino-hotel, but yes, it is that kind of pun—referring both to a life-changing Greek island getaway and to the final gambit of a wannabe celebrity author.
Caleb Horowitz, the narrator and protagonist of Lipstein’s novel, is a 27-year-old aspiring writer with few credits to his name. The trouble starts when he runs into an old college chum, Avi, also a creative writer, who tells him an intriguing story about a brief romantic fling during an impromptu vacation. The next day, Avi emails him to confess that he’s trying to work his real-life adventure into a publishable narrative. Would Caleb read over his short account and offer some constructive feedback?
Caleb politely accepts but ultimately decides that this short tale would be much better if he, Caleb, made some extensive changes and expanded it into a novel. A few months later, he uses this new manuscript to secure representation from a big-shot literary agent, while keeping the story’s true origin a secret.
But the literary world is really a small community, and Avi—now working in publishing—soon finds out about the hot new manuscript (titled Last Resort) in the middle of a bidding war, about to receive an advance in the high six figures. Avi explains his position to Caleb’s agent, who urges the two to strike a deal: Avi’s name will appear on the jacket as the book’s sole author, but Caleb will receive all the money from the advance. But when it comes to a literary bestseller, which is better—cash or credit?
Plagiarism remains the biggest bugaboo in fiction writing today. Alexis Nowicki caused an uproar last year when she revealed in a Slate article that Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 short story “Cat Person” (one of the most popular ever published in The New Yorker magazine) had relied heavily on specific details lifted from Nowicki’s social media accounts. Similarly, last November Robert Kolker published a viral essay in The New York Times Magazine about the “bad art friend,” a writer who took language from a frenemy writer’s Facebook page and used it mockingly in a piece of fiction (only to end up in an extensive lawsuit). Even established classics are being re-scrutinized for chicanery—as Sands Hall, in a recent essay for Alta, has resurrected the scandal surrounding Wallace Stegner’s extensive copying from Western writer Mary Hallock Foote’s correspondence in his own acclaimed 1971 novel Angle of Repose.
In Lipstein’s compelling twist, the initial victim finds the act of plagiarism perfectly acceptable. Avi is pleased to have his story “ghostwritten” by Caleb because he knows that he couldn’t have done it himself. The psychology of the thief drives the narrative in Last Resort. Caleb has written a hit novel, but he can’t tell anyone about it. He’s now rich enough to quit his day job and move into a nicer Brooklyn apartment, but he can’t enjoy the recognition of literary success. As might be expected, this drives him crazy.
The dips and turns of Lipstein’s plot are artfully arranged, and the sequence of moves and revelations is satisfying. Caleb takes us through his series of bad decisions. “Maybe I knew my logic was poke-able, but that was okay,” he says. “I knew that what I was doing was right, that I was on the right track at least, that I was, at the very least, unraveling things, pulling the thread I had miraculously teased out from the tangled ball of yarn that was the bane of my life.”
The major flaw of the novel is Caleb’s character. It’s one thing for a narrator to be immoral (and Caleb clearly is), but it’s another for him to be unlikeable. We’re not given a good reason to root for Caleb. He doesn’t even have much of a motive for his theft. He acts selfishly, realizes his faults, and then requires others to affirm his own awareness of his failure—as if that counts as admonishment. His description of his sleepless nights neatly sums up his attitude: “Mostly I thought about wrongs—wrongs I’d inflicted on others, wrongs other people had inflicted on me, wrongs I’d inflicted on myself (my forte).”
But even if Caleb’s confessions don’t elicit much sympathy, Last Resort is a fun send-up of the contemporary book business. While the publishing houses here are fictional (“Perry” rather than Penguin), the critics are real. Caleb obsessively reads over reviews of his novel penned by Dwight Garner (The New York Times) and James Wood (The New Yorker). (Garner amusingly calls it a “highbrow beach read,” which only helps its sales.) And Lipstein really lays bare that terrible aspect of fiction writing—the need to convert life into representation, to re-fashion experience as story. This is the distance, familiar to most writers, of undergoing a significant personal drama while simultaneously reflecting upon how you will narrate it to someone else later.
In fact, one of the blurbs for Last Resort comes from Tao Lin, whose influential Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009) begins with the protagonist, Sam, on Google Chat with his writer friend Luis, who discuss how when life is going poorly they tend to imagine how they’ll write up the experience in their fiction. Lipstein similarly provides Caleb a friendship that exists primarily through Gchat, a communication that shifts between sheer nonsense and transcendent earnestness: “Throughout the day we might send each other random assortments of letters (gurjj, druff, fridj) or information meant to set a new bar of banality (tall eyebrow guy wearing red pants 2nd day in row) but then share our most vulnerable thoughts—personal failings, a falling-out with a family members, herpes scares. I loved him, and he loved me. We’d never say it, but there it was.” It’s tempting to imagine that Lipstein himself is Caleb—or perhaps Avi. Like his characters, he too is a Haverford alum who moved to Brooklyn. And he has said that he did indeed write a novel about a Greek island affair but failed to sell it—and that this one, Last Resort, is partly a fantasy imagining if his earlier manuscript had made a big splash. But Caleb is an interesting character on his own, and his central dilemma offers fun thought experiment about authorship and originality.