Dylan Hicks skewers literary scene, in a literary way

"Amateurs" by Dylan Hicks
The book jacket for Dylan Hicks' new novel "Amateurs."
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

Dylan Hicks loves words, and he uses them in many ways. He's a rock musician, a journalist and a novelist.

His new book, "Amateurs," deftly skewers the modern literary world. He admits that writing about writers wasn't a huge stretch for him.

"It doesn't testify to my powers of imagination, I guess," he said. "I did feel some trepidation about writing about writers, and some people are turned off by that immediately. I felt a little shame, like I really ought to be writing about — I don't know why I always come back to the Crimean War; I feel like I should be writing about the Crimean War. Something that would involve a lot of research, and removed from my own experience."

Dylan Hicks
Dylan Hicks is a writer, a musician, a journalist and now a puzzle-maker. The Twin Cities polymath releases his second novel "Amateurs" this week.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

But writers, as a topic, fit with his larger goal of writing a comic novel.

"It borrows some of its forms from romantic comedy," he said. "In the Hollywood tradition, which derives ultimately from books by Jane Austen and other novels. So I am reluctant to make that latter comparison too loosely, lest it seem presumptuous. But I suppose formally that's one of the traditions that we're playing with."

"Amateurs" follows the fortunes of four individuals who orbit a charismatic character called Archer, "a man with literary aspirations and a man of vast independent means," said Hicks. "From Winnipeg."

The story, which is narrated from these four points of view, covers the several years between the group's graduation from college and Archer's wedding. In the book, his distant cousin Karyn sits at her kitchen table in Minneapolis and considers the ostentatious wedding invitation that has arrived:

"To any other cousin she would have sent polite regrets and bath towels, but this was different. To begin with, there was the allure of wealth; though she had been to at least one wedding of people who were rich by all standards except those of the Western rich, she had never been to a wedding of people who were rich by any standard."

Not only is Archer rich, but he has made the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list of young writers to watch. As such he is the subject of jealousy, but he's also someone who could help the others resolve their own problems. Of course, Hicks says, these things are never simple, as he lays out in his story.

"I guess I have always been attracted to books and movies about con artists or charlatans," he said.

The question is, in the words of Aretha Franklin, "Who's zooming who?"

"Amateurs" is a story about wordsmiths, and its delight lies in Hicks' own use of language. A recent review in the Los Angeles Times raved about his use of cutting similes and the way he "shares them with a dry, funny sense of humor."

Hicks will read from the book at its launch at the Loft Literary Center at 7 p.m. Thursday.

He's also been working on his music, recording material for a new album. He sometimes wonders if he should be more single-minded, focusing on one thing — his fiction, his music or his journalism. But he likes having a choice.

"If I get a little frustrated with one pursuit, I can move to the other," he said. "I did a lot of that recording while I was waiting for the book to come out, and that was a useful thing to do. I didn't feel very anxious leading up to the book in part because I had other things to work on."

And one of those things is a new pursuit: he recently began writing the "Really Difficult Puzzles" column for the Paris Review. The first was based on the old car-ride game Hink Pink.

"You say, 'I'm thinking of a Hink Pink and it's an overweight feline,' and the answer is 'fat cat.' So I just tried to come up with more complex multi-syllabic clues, and often related to somewhat arcane artsy or historical figures," he said. "They were usually names."

And they were hard. So hard, the Paris Review offered prizes to the first six readers who solved just 30 of the 60 Hicks presented. It was such a success that he's now writing a monthly feature, creating a new puzzle form each time.

"So it's been kind of fun," he said. "A little bit burdensome, to be honest, because it takes a little bit longer than the pay justifies, I would say. I really enjoy it and I am glad to be doing it. But I always think it will take me a day, and then it takes me two days, and you know ... ."

But Hicks will be OK. He's got that album to finish, and then there's the next novel to write: many more words.