James Magnuson’s ‘Famous Writers’ entertains despite familiarity

Robert Starr

Upon first arrival, Austin can be something of a shock. A pleasant one, but not one without its little quirks that we put up with, like strange roads that never lead where one wants them to and intense fear of cold weather that strikes whenever the temperature falls below 60 degrees. But Austinites allow these things and enjoy them because they contribute to why people fall in love with this strange city.

James Magnuson’s “Famous Writers I Have Known” is a kind of love letter to Austin, even as it pokes fun at it, just as the novel is an affectionate ribbing of the world of literary fiction. It’s fluff, but it’s entertaining fluff without a hint of pretension.

Frankie Abandonato, a self-described “world-class liar,” cons the wrong man and finds himself on the run from the mafia. He ends up in Austin, impersonating a reclusive writer who hadn’t been seen in years, teaching starry-eyed students how to write.

Just from the set-up, it is clear what to expect: the close calls where Abandonato has to bluff his way through topics he knows nothing about, the close friendships that form using his new identity and the moments where, for the first time in his life, he chooses to do the right thing. These elements are all here, and perhaps some of the literary characters in the book might look down at the familiarity of the story, but why change what works? 

He also takes the advice of writing what you know. Magnuson is the director of the Michener Center for Writers at UT, and he creates believable interactions between the students in the novel, who are just as likely to encourage each other as look down on their peers as a way to hide insecurity.

Magnuson uses his Austin know-how to create a genuine portrait of the city as well as genuine laughs with Abandonato’s reaction to it. It’s unfortunate that Magnuson doesn’t use the novel’s setting more. It might have been amusing for Abandonato to witness what happens to the city during the utter chaos of South By Southwest — perhaps that may have even made a better backdrop for the climax than what the book ultimately provides. Still, the authenticity Magnuson provides helps elevate “Famous Writers I Have Known” above the typical con-man imposter story.

The novel has no pretenses about what it is and, though it’s unlikely to win the Pulitzer, it’s equally unlikely that readers will have much of a need for their bookmark as they plow through this delightful look at the city we love through the eyes of an Austin virgin.