At the beginning of THE PLAGIARIST, Arthur Prentice strives for and then earns a job at a general interest magazine, one held in low esteem by the literary community. That community includes acclaimed novelist Icarus Prentice, Arthur’s father. Arthur takes the job not for the prestige but for the money, at the urging of his wife, who complains about having to borrow from both sets of parents and who equates financial liquidity with sexual potency.
A bewildering array of alliances and manipulations marks Arthur’s career at the magazine. The starting position finally offered to him pays a smaller salary than his previous job. He soon finds himself enmeshed in the intrigue of corporate restructurings, accused by some colleagues of being an informer for others. Through it all, Arthur’s career and salary advance, pleasing his wife, the incongruously named Faith, who has little of that quality for her husband. Arthur finds himself called upon to perform increasingly unpleasant tasks to advance his career, the final one of which is obtaining a story by his father for the magazine, which Icarus considers to be laughable in its quality.
Arthur’s entire career and family situation is, in fact, laughable as presented by Cheever. THE PLAGIARIST is a study in dysfunctional families, featuring alcoholic Icarus, frigid Faith, Arthur and Faith’s unhappy and possibly neurotic child Nathan, and Faith’s controlling parents. Cheever’s treatment of marital discord is witty with slight undertones of tragedy; his description of worklife at Arthur’s magazine is simply hilarious. Some of the minor characters are the most memorable, among them Doc, the security guard paid more than many of the magazine editors, and the psychiatrist who sleeps during Arthur’s sessions.