By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Thomas Beller plays a little trick on me. The young Manhattan-based fiction writer -- whom The New York Times has called ”brilliant“ and the New York Observer ”a local rake“ -- is late to our lunch at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop, where I’ve been waiting, for the better part of the afternoon, at a table covered with his books. He‘s on his way from the airport, and since I don’t have a cell phone, he leaves a succession of messages on my voice mail at work, like a trail of bait. But each time I return his call from the nearby pay phone, I get the same deep, melodious recording; quick but confident, it‘s the harried but enthused tone of someone on his first national literary tour. Then, on my third attempt, Beller answers.
”I’m so sorry, I‘m not going to make it after all,“ he tells me.
”I’ve been waiting an hour and a half,“ I say into the phone, which is on the other side of the wall directly behind my booth. Suddenly, the waitress comes through the door waving, but I ignore her and continue. ”Maybe we could . . .“
”It just won‘t happen on this visit to L.A.,“ Beller cuts in, flippantly. At which point, I let professional courtesy fall by the wayside and, voice rising, recall a list of all the ways he’s inconvenienced me this afternoon. The waitress, a peculiar look on her now red face, begins pointing emphatically through the doorway. And that‘s when I catch on.
Back in my booth, Beller sits laughing, and snaps his cell phone shut. He is wild-eyed and enormous. At 6-foot-5, with long, gangly limbs, a mess of scraggly hair, and giant, awkward hands and feet, he is nothing like the mellow and more manicured photo on the back of his debut novel, The Sleep-Over Artist.
”So tell me, what are we doing here, dear?“ asks Beller with an extravagant wave, apparently referring to the distance I’ve forced him to drive.
Beller‘s voice, too, is big; though he’s lived his entire life in New York it carries, curiously, the faint trace of what sounds like a British accent. ”Figure,“ for example, is ”figger.“ He is a loud but cultured presence. But Beller is also enormously smart and ambitious (if a bit enormously taken with himself); and, having spent time as a staff writer for The New Yorker, co-founded (with Daniel Pinchbeck and the late Robert Bingham) the literary magazine Open City and authored the short-story collection Seduction Theory, Beller has been, if not enormously successful, then at least enviably so. With The Sleep-Over Artist, he‘s become that particular breed of bookish celebrity that seems possible only within the confines of literary New York.
Beller is not unaware of his strategic position. He goes to parties so often that the Observer notes when there is a ”Thomas Beller sighting in effect,“ and he was named one of ”the 100 most-wanted bachelors in New York“ by Manhattan File. Clearly, Beller has crafted a BIG persona for himself, though he won’t admit it: ”People always bring up marketing. I‘m not trying to do anything. I’m just trying to get through the day and find something that animates me enough to get through the fucking gate,“ he says. ”But it‘s interesting that this [issue] keeps coming up. What people are basically asking is, ’How do you construct a self? Is it an authentic self?‘ These are questions that apply to everybody.“
Still, the persona of Thomas Beller -- the strapping, shaggy-haired intellectual who almost exclusively wears worn-out T-shirts and speaks in quick, enthusiastic bursts -- has become larger than the writing itself, somewhat obscuring it. Detractors argue that he’s all gloss, and a debate has exploded online over -- of all things -- his physicality and his personality. Which is a shame, because it‘s Beller’s writing that should be drawing attention.
The Sleep-Over Artist is a smart and funny episodic novel that follows the restless Upper West Side character Alex Fader through a string of romantic interludes, throughout which the protagonist prides himself on two things: his sense of irony, and his ability to bring women to orgasm (in one case, with his big toe). A literary Seinfeld of sorts, Beller has an admirable eye for detail and a cutting observational wit that wryly pokes fun at the quotidian moments of daily life in New York, highlighting the ”seconds of pleasure“ in our lives, as Beller puts it.
Noting this to him, I am reminded of why I wanted to meet Beller in the first place. But almost as soon as we get started, his cell phone rings, and he‘s up from the table pacing the length of the restaurant in giant strides, talking loudly: ”Hey, my man. How are you?“ He returns to the table with a beer and launches into a 10-minute aside about the journalist Joseph Mitchell. I try to steer him back, if just to work in a question or two before he’s off to a reading at Vroman‘s in Pasadena. Beller responds to my prodding with contempt. Leaning forward on his elbows and resting his jaw in his palms, he gives a series of clipped, one-word answers: ”Um,“ ”Mm-hmm,“ ”Hm.“