Famous After Death

A comic writer like his famous father John, Benjamin Cheever treats readers to an intermittently amusing account of the fall and ironic rise of an overweight and generally unprepossessing New York editor Noel Hammersmith who desires above all to be famous, thin, and loved by many women. However, he has just been dumped by Ginny, and his work for Acropolis, “The Best Little Publishing House in America,” consists chiefly in editing diet books—The All- Poison Diet is a big success—for the endlessly gullible. He himself, though a runner, is popping diet pills from a mail-order company, Golden Rule Vitamins, as a result of which he gains weight steadily, eventually topping out at 225.

A pony-tailed crank who calls himself Che Guevara seeks Hammersmith out with a proposal to write a book on international terrorism. In a variety of modes and 38 short chapters covering the years 1984-1988 Cheever traces retrospectively and tongue-in-cheek Noel’s problems with weight, women, therapy, and work (he is down-sized, and his firm, “the American publisher of Kafka,” is to be taken over by a cat-food company, Pretty Kitty). These problems culminate in his agreeing to take the responsibility for the four-year bombing campaign resulting in thirty-four deaths by Che, The Wordsworth Bomber (he leaves poem fragments at the scene), because it will make him famous and because the police do not want the obscure underground anti-immigration political group the Know-Nothings (whose agent is Che) to benefit from any publicity.

Readers see Noel in prison at the opening of the novel about to be interviewed by Babawawa and learn at the end of the novel of a proposed television special on his life, played “charmingly” by Don Johnson. Noel weighs 138 lbs., and is now a happy man, having achieved all his heart’s desires: fame, slimness, and the adoration of the many women who write him (“Half a dozen marriage proposals a month”) plus time to write his journals.