A literary conference might not seem like an obvious setting for mayhem and nonsense, but that’s just what’s on the agenda in Chris Belden’s enjoyable Shriver, in which a lonely man gets invited to a university conference thanks to a case of mistaken identity. Shriver—the wrong Shriver—RSVPs, thinking it a good practical joke, until he’s swept up in the sordid, confusing world of egomaniacal writers and those who adore them.
The gathering’s broad theme of “reality-slash-illusion” is one that the novel does great work of confusing—it pretty much blurs the slash right out. Who is Shriver? The writer of a controversial novel—or the man mistaken for that man? What makes a writer, anyway? Literary culture’s penchant for superlatives and hero-worship is enjoyably skewered: The real Shriver is revered for a 20-year-old book most people haven’t even finished.
Shriver is a semi-likable character with more than a couple neuroses, which makes him plausible to the conference-goers as the reclusive author of the same name. He considers himself the furthest thing from a writer; he’s a man of simple pursuits who loves his cat, Mr. Bojangles, and enjoys a one-sided correspondence with a local news anchor. But everyone seems willing to be convinced, especially Professor Simone Cleverly, the university’s conference coordinator, who ironically hates writers; Edsel Nixon, Shriver’s always-there-when-you-need-him handler; and the cowboy academician T. Wätzczesnam (pronounced “whatsisname”) who quotes poetry in every conversation.
The wacky cast of characters, inane situations and a whodunit subplot brings to mind the 1980s cult classic movie Clue. At every turn in the satirical story, someone who could unmask our protagonist lurks. Meanwhile, Shriver juggles the investigation of a missing poet last seen in his hotel room, a bewildering plague of mosquitoes and a shadowy figure in black. Shriver’s fear of being outed as an impostor rings true for any writer—wannabe or bona fide—who’s ever doubted their abilities.