The drama of this tale makes it a page turner (or in the case of an audiobook a long-listener). Yet it is, at its center, somewhat unsatisfying becausThe drama of this tale makes it a page turner (or in the case of an audiobook a long-listener). Yet it is, at its center, somewhat unsatisfying because the author and main character seems blissfully unaware of how his behavior might affect others. As he flies around the world on his mad adventure, enjoying his extramarital affairs with seemingly little reflection as his wife is committing bank fraud for him at home, he lies to friends and business partners as if the whole matter were out of his control.
The amazing coincidences, strokes of luck and close calls are the stuff of great fiction. As the author writes himself into his own movie, his fictional autobiography and the fiction he must create for the people at McGraw Hill become simply two parts of one elaborate writing project. As you see him encounter one close call after another, you want him to get away with it, yet you know that there is only one possible outcome. He's going to be caught.
The book becomes much less satisfying as it moves into Irving's downward trajectory as his hoax is unraveled and the consequences loom, as it certainly was for the author. The pain inflicted on his wife through both the legal ramifications of the hoax and the revelation of Irving's affairs are difficult to read. Irving does express remorse for that and for lying to one or two friends, but in general he seems to view his hoax as a victimless joke.
McGraw Hill is a corporation done in by greed in his tale, and the people who were duped and whose reputations surely took a beating, most likely would find that compounded by this book. Their crime was believing Irving and standing behind him, and for that the author says at one point that he sometimes thought he should cheer about what he had done-- that he had exposed the limits of corporate greed and stupidity.
I was especially bothered by way one of the editors, a woman who he chose as his first patsy because she had been loyal to him throughout his career, was voiced in the audio book edition. While it is difficult for an actor to differentiate between all the character's voices, I found it distracting that this publishing professional spoke like a bubble-headed valley girl. She may not have come across as quite so unintelligent and easily fooled in the Irving text, as she did in the audio version in which she spoke like an un-reflective teenager discussing the latest MTV reality show. This seemed particularly unfair to this listener.
So why were the McGraw Hill team so easily hoodwinked? I do not believe it was a simple case of greed and corporate stupidity. There was certainly some group-think and excitement over possibly having the coup of their careers might have clouded their judgment. But they were fooled for the same reason the story fascinates the reader-- who would have the audacity to claim to have written the autobiography of a living person and think they could get away with it? Only someone truly crazy would think that the living person and his organization would ignore such a thing. The unlikeliness of such a scenario is bound to make people believe. The lie is more credible than the truth.
In the end, I was left with the feeling that the damage his caper caused to other people (with the exceptions of his wife and children) was more fictional to the author than the Howard Hughes he created in his mind.
When he is asked if he would do it again, he says he would not. But his remorse is not for others. He says he would not repeat his fraud because "I have lost too much."
I was taken by the audacity and cleverness of the hoax, and propelled by the drama, I would like to have had a more sympathetic main character. Of course, that is a lot to ask from a book by someone with the personality to pull such a thing in the first place. ...more