Satire skewers popular fiction

Jesse Kellerman – Potboiler

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Jesse Kellerman’s deliciously funny spoof “Potboiler” is at once a parody of the thriller genre and a thriller in itself.  The book offers a satiric look at popular fiction, publishing and professional jealousy that goes in wholly unexpected and hilarious directions. 

Arthur Pfefferkorn is a middle-aged professor of creative writing at a small college, whose literary ambitions have lapsed after he published one novel in his youth but nothing since. Meanwhile his childhood friend Bill de Vallee (nee Kowalczyk) has gone on to success and fame publishing a string of popular spy thrillers featuring his invincible hero Dick Stapp.  

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A “pot boiler” is defined as a low-quality book cranked out by a hack writer just to pay the bills, a name inspired by the phrase “boiling the pot,” which means making a living. Certainly this is Pfefferkorn’s disdainful opinion of de Vallee’s books, and the once close friends have drifted apart as their fortunes have diverged. As unoriginal and artistically bankrupt as de Vallee’s books are, they are still wildly popular with his readers, who relish his unlikely plot twists and complex conspiracies. De Vallee is given to repeating phrases in his novels like “in one fluid motion” and his hero Stapp never just says things, he “interjects,” “exclaims,” or “puts in,” something that drives the academic Pfefferkorn bats.

When Bill de Vallee is lost at sea in a boating accident and declared dead, Pfefferkorn flies to California for the memorial service at the invitation of Bill’s widow Carlotta. Pfefferkorn was in love with Carlotta back in their college days before she fell for his best friend Bill. Reconnecting with Carlotta and having access to Bill’s last unfinished novel opens unexpected possibilities for Pfefferkorn.

Kellerman has a real comic knack with phrasing, crafting exuberant tongue-in-cheek sentences that parody the genre but often with a new mocking twist at the end. Assessing Bill’s latest novel, Pfefferkorn notes his hero Stapp is “a brilliant, physically invincible figure formerly in the employ of a shadowy, never-named government arm whose apparent sole purpose was to furnish story lines for thrillers.” Clearly, Kellerman is just enjoying himself by playing with the genre’s bad writing, ridiculous plots and unreal super heros. The fun extends to a page of “recommendations” for Dick Stapp thrillers by writers like Stephen King and publications like the “Woonsocket Potato Pancake.” 

A whole book of that kind of fun and games with words is hard to sustain but Kellerman attempts more, by turning his parody into a mystery thriller itself.

Parodying thrillers while writing one is a tricky balancing act. The book goes down one path, focused on Pfefferkorn’s envy and unfulfilled life, until almost half way through. It then takes a Hitchcockian turn toward thriller, when Pfefferkorn is accused of a crime he did not commit, although he is guilty of other things. 

As Kellerman puts it “If Pfefferkorn was shaken before, he was really quite badly shaken now. He was like a martini inside a rock tumbler being held by a detoxing epileptic standing on stilts atop a trampoline inside the San Andreas fault.”

This kind of thing starts to escalate, with Kellerman trying to top his own clever phrasing again and again, like a bestseller thriller writer trying to take each new novel up another notch. Pfefferkorn, and Kellerman, are driven to extremes: “He grabbed Savory around the neck and wrung him like a chicken on the eve of Yom Kippur.”  

Kellerman’s literary spoofing includes the structure of the book as well. Sections have titles like “Art” (the name of the neurotic protagonist but also his claimed goal in his own writing) or “Commerce,” which tip you off to the contents. These portions are then broken up into chapters only a few pages long, suitable for reading in quick bites in the bathroom or before falling asleep. 

There are whole pages of staccato dialogue mocking the exchanges found in some popular fiction (and blockbuster action movies, too). 

The book might reach a bit too far in the end but, still, it is fun and filled with intelligence, literary wit and playfulness. 

“Potboiler” is a oft-delightful read and comic relief for anyone who has ever wondered about the appeal of those endless spy thriller book series.