The recent literary scandals sent me scurrying to the Slushpile.net library. Fraudulent identities and plagiarized words… someone spoofed this very situation. So I pulled down William Kotzwinkle’s hilarious 1996 novel The Bear Went Over the Mountain. A decade ago, this writer satirized the publishing industry with a plot that, at the time, required a massive suspension of disbelief. But quite frankly, as I type this today, I have to admit that nothing would surprise me.
This engaging book is worth quoting in some detail so you can get an idea of how accurately Kotzwinkle nailed the more satire-worthy elements of publishing. But don’t fear, what I’m describing here doesn’t even come close to revealing all the jewels of this book.
In rural Maine, college professor Arthur Bramhall loses his novel in a fire. His book had been a callous copy of a bestselling book but after its destruction, Bramhall faces a blank page again. “The fire had taught him something, about patience, renewal, fortitude. He gave up trying to write a copy of a best-seller and wrote in a fever of inspiration straight from the heart–about love and longing, and loss, and about the forces of nature, into whose power he’d been initiated.” Fearful of another fire, Bramhall hides his new heartfelt manuscript under the branches of a tree.
Then a voracious bear, looking for pie or some garbage to eat, stumbles across Bramhall’s manuscript. “He sniffed disappointedly at the manuscript. Termite food, he said to himself, and turned to go, but a line on the first page caught his eye and he read a little ways. His reading habits had been confined to the labels on jam jars and cans of colored sprinkles, but something in the manuscript compelled him to read further.” The bear takes the manuscript and heads into town. The bear steals a suit, a baseball cap, shoes, takes the pen name Hal Jam, and begins to take the publishing world by storm.
And when Bramhall, the true author finds out, hilarity ensues, as they say.
Hal discusses representation with Chum Boykins of the Boykins Literary Agency at a fine French restaurant. Hal’s poor speaking skills are interpreted as a sign of artistic genius and his rough demeanor is instantly likened to Hemingway. Initially, the bear doesn’t seem receptive to the idea of book tours but the literary agent pleads, “I understand, Hal, you don’t want to hear about it yet. You’ve just written a novel and it’s precious to you. But these days the author is as much the product as the book.”
Hal is sent to meet with Editor Elliot Gadson who “was reading the final proofs of an autobiography written by acquitted scion Barton Balfour III, who’d been accused of having disposed of his wife by serving her up to guests in a light Madeira mushroom sauce. Balfour’s prose style left much to be desired, but the main thing was that the heart was there.” In a corner of the editor’s office stands a “life-size cardboard replica of Barton Balfour III with a knife and fork in his hands.”
Publicity Director Bettina Quint rushes into the meeting. “Bettina had already made her own assessment of the new young writer the Muses had sent off the assembly line. From her reading of a three-paragraph synopsis of Jam’s book she’d concluded that he was the find of the year… She regretted not having had time to read the book–it seemed like fun–but that was a luxury she couldn’t afford just yet. The interviewers she’d be wooing wouldn’t have time to read the book either; they’d be working from her publicity release. Something so drab as the book itself wasn’t much use to anyone.”
Bettina pitches her publicity plans. “We’ll make the Hemingway comparison, I hope you don’t mind. Sportsman, adventurer, larger than life, the man of action who can also tell a love story… Forgive me, Hal, I have to treat my authors as objects. You have charisma, and I want to capitalize on it.”
During the meeting, Hal drops to the floor, as bears are wont to do, and rolls around on his back. The publishing executives interpret this animalistic scratching as something more. Gadson believes “it was obvious that Jam’s gruff exterior hid a sensitive nature, vulnerable as a child’s. He whispered to Bettina, ‘A touch of autism, valiantly overcome? Is there an angle for you?'”
Later, in the park, Hal Jam strolls with Bettina and he sees a child playing with a radio-controlled submarine in a pond. The bear plunges into the water and chomps down on what he thinks is a fish. Plastic and electronics fall out of his gaping mouth. “All bones,” is Hal’s summation. Always on the lookout for headlines, Bettina ponders, “a public figure who destroyed children’s toys could be an interesting publicity sell, with the right angle. ‘Did you do it because you think children have been exploited by the toy industry?’ ‘Bad fishing,’ said the bear. He was, as Bettina’d hoped, an environmentalist. Bettina reflected on his reply. Hal Jam, renowned sportsman, sums up society’s problem this way: Bad fishing. A sound bite with potential.”
Hal meets with Hollywood superagent Zou Zou Sharr at Elaine’s bar in New York City. “Zou Zou was genuinely enthusiastic despite not having read the book. In showbiz, books were always a question mark, because books were just books, but buzz you could trust… And the buzz on Hal Jam’s book was big.”
Like everyone else in the novel Zou Zou doesn’t really think about Hal’s simplistic speech. She just takes it as part of his personality and interprets his comments as hardball negotiating. His mind typically stays on food so while talking about the Hollywood representation rights, Hal responds with answers such as “not enough honey.” Zou Zou thinks he’s after more cash. “I promise that we’ll get you the sweetest deal in the business,” she assures him.
The bear’s novel eventually sells to Universal Studios for a million and a half dollars.