Play It as It Lies

The Fugitives BY Christopher Sorrentino. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of The Fugitives

The Fugitives is the story of a writer who can’t, or won’t—always a fuzzy distinction—write any more. By the time we meet Alexander Mulligan, his dead-ended third novel is years late. Off the page, things seem to be wrapping up all too quickly. He has left his wife for his mistress, then left his mistress for his wife, then left his wife again. Shamed for his behavior by gossip blogs, he has retreated from his home in Brooklyn to rural Michigan, approximately where Ernest Hemingway set In Our Time. It is here that Mulligan, adrift in the “All-American et cetera,” has discovered the Ojibway storyteller John Salteau, a regular performer at the local library. Compared with Salteau, Hemingway is ornate. The Ojibway’s simple stories for children open Mulligan’s eyes to a truth about reality: “He speaks,” Mulligan thinks, “and the encrustations upon the world fall away as he brings a more essential one into being.” Back in New York, Mulligan’s editor is sufficiently alarmed to call him up and ask why he’s “hanging around with some Indian.” “What is it, some kind of George Harrison thing?”

A protagonist of a certain age, who seeks renewal in a rustic setting, and who then anoints an Indian as his guide back from decadent urban living to a more primal mode of being—it’s a classic, if not trite, story line of self-discovery, but Christopher Sorrentino’s smart and mordant novel soon subverts it with bitter élan. The book begins with a cliché it will promptly dismantle: the arrival on the scene of the Younger Woman. Kat Danhoff, The Fugitives’ other principal narrator, is a reporter, and her appearance at a Salteau reading is the disruption that sparks the plot. She has come to town on a tip that Salteau is, in fact, the disguised gangster Jackie Saltino, a bagman rumored to have stolen $450,000 from the Ojibway casino he once worked at. By the time Kat can confirm her tipster’s impression that Salteau is, indeed, “a little off,” she has already bumped into Mulligan.

Kat thinks Mulligan knows Salteau better than he actually does. Mulligan thinks Kat finds a blocked novelist’s “rusty allure” more winning than it is. They end up on a date, more each other’s marks than potential mates. Each narrates the scene in turn. Mulligan rants—about himself (he hates New York), about New York (has she ever been to a book party?), about Thomas Pynchon (he knows where he lives). Kat’s version paraphrases it to a few impatient sentences. She is a fraud of a new, exemplary kind, a person whose “niceness” on social media belies her self-servingness IRL. (At one point, in a distinctly contemporary revenge fantasy, the sardonic phantom of her ex-husband shows up in Kat’s daydreams to upbraid her for describing their divorce in the self-forgiving clichés of personal growth: “You didn’t discover a damn thing about yourself.”) She eventually goes to bed with Mulligan because, she reasons, he could give her Salteau exposé “a feature angle.” Mulligan, meanwhile, has his own angle on her: “Maybe . . . we could carve out a space for ourselves,” he says, postcoitally, “just the two of us, where nobody else can come.” The dream of a clean slate, of a magic spell for undoing the past, is encoded in Mulligan’s very surname, a golf term designating the do-over occasionally granted a player who hits a bad shot—in essence, a cheat, a license to forgive yourself, and a very American idea. A “mulligan” is even (if you will) the American idea, the creed of the New World, the Puritan promise that the past is optional: Why live with your mistakes when you can simply press RESET?

Of course, the New World was a trick of perspective; for the Natives who greeted the Puritans, there was no other world to run to. The Fugitives repeatedly holds out these fantasies of renewal only to undercut them—never more brutally than with the renewal promised by literature. At its crudest, fiction is a way to cheat the facts. A quick biographical study reveals that Sorrentino has created a hero very much in his own image, give or take a few tweaks: Sorrentino, too, had a hit second novel, Trance (2005); his father, Gilbert, was, as Mulligan’s father seems to be, an author (and the author of a novel titled Mulligan Stew). There may be other parallels for those in the know. But knowingness is a funny thing in The Fugitives, a novel too cunning, and too interested in how manipulatively autobiographical narratives are deployed, to be read as a simple roman à clef. We all know the How We Live Now novel; this is a How We Lie Now novel.

How we lie is much like how we write. Indeed, in this novel, identity is a kind of roman à clef, a fiction derivative of life. This is true first of all of Salteau/Saltino. But of Kat, too: She is a Native American who prefers to conceal her heritage, her succinct reasoning being that “identity was a trap.” Can such traps ever be any different, morally? “It was just another of the hustles that Indian culture had been reduced to,” thinks Kat of the casino Saltino worked at. “Blankets, pots, storytelling, casino gambling.” Thus stories are no better than the slots. Sorrentino has found in the dubiously flexible terms of twenty-first-century identity a subject fit for his high-powered postmodern style: the pyrotechnics of everyone lying their asses off. But his bleakly ingenious novel also raises a lamentation for the art it practices. It shows a world in which, just as life has been degraded by the techniques of fiction, literature has been degraded by how we live. While it is tempting to see Mulligan, the blocked novelist, as the one good man in this unlovely tableau, our desire to do so may only tell us about the fantasies we harbor as readers. Mulligan is just as much a hustler as anybody else, the kind of narrator who is more frank than honest, who can rhapsodize about the “rustic charm” of suicide while omitting that a key character has killed herself. The appearance of candor is just another evasive maneuver, the literary touch its most tawdry aspect. Bullshit is the only system Mulligan knows, and it’s a system too entrenched for either him or Kat to escape, let alone find love in. The Fugitives is a novel of that system: It shows us what we’re all stuck inside. “Only in death,” says a ghost, summarily, “is there time to rue life as fully as life deserves.” This brilliantly cranky book suggests that the ghost might be wrong.

James Camp is a writer living in New York.