Dear Losers 

Underachievers: enough already.

Take it from Pete Tarslaw: "Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people's work. They are human garbage."

And if there's one thing Pete Tarslaw knows, it's garbage. He writes it to earn barely a living at EssayAides, a business outside Boston that ghostwrites college-application essays for students who are either too dumb to write the essays themselves or too foreign-born to understand basic English.

Pete Tarslaw's also a loser of the overeducated variety: He's smarmy as hell, a real know-it-all. He drinks too much, broadcasts his opinions on every subject in the book (including the subject of book reviewers), plus he's a failure in the romance department. But he gets fired from EssayAides. And he learns that his successful ex-girlfriend is getting married.

Time, then, for Tarslaw to get down to business, show that ex-girlfriend, at her wedding reception, what real success looks like. His goal: to get famous. And he does get famous by deliberately writing a piece of garbage with bestseller written all over it. He calls it The Tornado Ashes Club, and that's the setup in Steve Hely's satire on the publishing industry called How I Became a Famous Novelist (Black Cat).

Hely is a Harvard grad who went on to write for David Letterman and the TV show American Dad, which makes him no slouch in the smarmy department. These days, he's a writer for 30 Rock. But do you want yet another comic novel on the unfunny trials and tribulations of successful slackerdom? How I Became a Famous Novelist will have you feeding on your own appetite for bile.

For more on the subject of loserdom: Take it from a 25-year-old musician. When make-or-break Sub Pop writes, you rejoice. As in:

"Dear Losers: This letter concerns your crummy demo tape. While it leaves much to be desired, miraculously it isn't as ear-piercingly horrible as the other thousand we received that day. One song in particular, 'Black Smoke, No Pope,' does not completely suck. Though we can't — for legal reasons — encourage you to continue making music, this letter is intended to come infinitely close to that point. Sincerely, Sub Pop Records."

Bingo. Climactic scene and reason enough in It Feels So Good When I Stop (Riverhead Books) for that 25-year-old musician to turn his life around.

This is musician Joe Pernice's debut novel, and it's about, no surprise, a slacker, but it'll be news to readers to read that note from Sub Pop five pages from finishing the book. Why? Because readers will scarcely realize that the recipient of that note is a frustrated musician.

What we do know is that the protagonist in It Feels So Good When I Stop is hanging out during the off-season on Cape Cod, he's been roundly rejected by his girlfriend in Brooklyn, and he's learning some lessons in adulthood from the nephew he babysits. He's learning more lessons courtesy of an older woman with a dead child haunting her past. This guy, true to form, also drinks a lot, and, true to form, his personal hygiene leaves more than a lot to be desired.

What's a musician with the talent of Joe Pernice doing writing about such a predictable lowlife? And what's a lyricist with the intelligence of Joe Pernice doing writing dialogue that is just this side of universally potty-mouthed?

I don't know. But it's making the idea of even opening Benjamin Anastas' 1998 novel, described by its paperback publisher, Dial Press, as "corrosively funny," about the last thing this piece of human garbage wants to dig into. The book's called An Underachiever's Diary.

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