Jesse Kellerman, Potboiler (2012) — a Micro Book Review — and an Observation about the Contemptuous Misuse of Talent

© 2015 Peter Free


05 August 2015



Ordinarily, I would not take the time to comment about someone else’s misuse of talent and their associated display of an embarrassing lack of sense — but . . .


Jesse Kellerman’s Potboiler (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012) was such an egregious example of both that it deserves notice for the questions it raises about an author and publisher’s unspoken obligation to respect themselves and their readers.


This espionage novel is an absurdly meandering, obtusely crafted, pseudo-satire that is neither funny nor insightful. It begins as a novel within a novel, a ploy that starts reasonably well. But Kellerman quickly loses his thread and descends rapidly into haphazardly linking chapters that make no sense in themselves and none at all assembled.


If one makes it through Kellerman’s vomit of otherwise attractively chosen words, one is left with the sense of having wasted precious hours of one’s life on a writer and a tale that do not deserve even an instant of time.


Rather than spoil the story — for those few readers who might actually enjoy this drivel — I’ll leave it for the curious to read Amazon dot com’s reviewers’ impressions, here.


Notice that 42 percent gave the book the lowest possible rating. That is astonishing for a novel that actually made it into print.



Why do I care?


Philosophically and existentially speaking, talent arguably brings obligations with it. Kellerman ignores those like a spoiled and entitled child.


He is the eldest son of authors Jonathan Kellerman and Faye Kellerman. Perhaps their possibly looming shadow explains both his talent and his occasionally perverse approach to his gift(s).


Jesse Kellerman is indeed a gifted writer, if that term is taken to mean the ability to string words together gracefully and in easily comprehensible, flowing form.





Here demonstrating an easy to follow novelistic style — which I prefer to his father’s more flamboyant approach:



They moved through the underbrush, ducking ferns and low-hanging vines, the dog bounding ahead in pursuit of a dragonfly. The light turned murky. Pfefferkorn felt as though he was heading into the heart of darkness. Rounding a mossy outcropping, they came to a glade flecked with dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace. Borkin sat by the door to a boxy wooden building, his tail swishing.

“Voilà,” Carlotta said.

Pfefferkorn regarded the building. “Looks like a barn,” he said.

“It was.”

“There you go.”

“The previous owner was something of a gentleman farmer. He bred champion goats.”

Pfefferkorn snorted.

“Don’t laugh,” she said. “The good ones go for upwards of fifty thousand dollars.”

“For a goat?”

“You don’t live around here if you’re poor. You know the part on a ballpoint pen cap that sticks out? So you can clip it onto something? He invented that.”

“My future son-in-law [an accountant] will be impressed.”

“Bill loved it out here,” Carlotta said. “He called it his refuge. From what, I wanted to know. He never did say.”


© 2012 Jesse Kellerman, Potboiler (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012) (at page 31)


Here dealing with human motivation, probably in parody:



He sat for some time in meditative silence. He thought of his failed novels. He thought of his failed marriage. He thought of Bill, good Bill, kind Bill, bashful Bill, Bill who had ever shown him only generosity, who had admired and studied him, who loved him and whom he had loved in return. He thought of Bill leaving his mansion to sit in a tiny, ugly room. Bill, typing his two thousand five hundred words, day in and day out. Bill, wishing he had one great book in him. Bill, with his own jealousies, his own regrets. Outside, the birds began to sing. Pfefferkorn looked at the manuscript, seventy pages unread, the rest pile messily and dangling at the edge of the desk, and he thought that Bill never would have been so careless. He thought of Carlotta, the way she had opened herself to him, in punishment and in reward. He thought of his daughter, who wedding he could not pay for. He thought of his students at the college, none of whom would ever succeed. They had no talent, and talent could not be learned. He thought of life and he thought of death. He thought: I deserve more.


© 2012 Jesse Kellerman, Potboiler (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012) (at page 46)


And here, a more overt slam at best-selling authors:



The theft of Shadowgame had begun with Pfefferkorn placing the manuscript in his carry-on, but it was not complete until eleven weeks later . . . . He would have finished far sooner had he not chosen to fix some of the more infelicitous phrasing. For instance, it was characteristic of special agent Richard “Dick” Stapp to perform difficult physical feats in one fluid motion. Pfefferkorn didn’t care for the expression one bit. It was better to say fluidly, or smoothly — or, better yet, to apply no modifier but rather to plainly state the action in question and allow the reader to envision it. . . . The third in one fluid motion came when Stapp simultaneously answered his cell phone and floored an attacker, a spectacular move that began with Stapp’s hand darting to his belt clip and removing the phone before proceeding in a sharp, shallow arc up toward his face to answer the call, the resultant jutting elbow striking his assailant in the solar plexus, leaving him — the assailant — “sinking to this knees, gasping for breath” (a phrase that itself cropped up again and again, along with “snapped his neck,” “dove for cover,” and “chambered a round”) while he — Stapp — calmly said I’m gonna have to call you back.


© 2012 Jesse Kellerman, Potboiler (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012) (at page 57)



The irony — which I am pretty darn sure was not intentional on Kellerman’s part


Potboiler makes fun of best-selling action novelists, but simultaneously exhibits not the slightest ability to keep (even applicable genre) readers interested in the boring senselessness going on within its own pages.


Jesse Kellerman has a good eye for inelegant literary phrasing, but apparently none for his own arguably unforgivable failure to entertain.


If one is going to throw stones, even in light-hearted parody, one had better exhibit some semblance of excellence in the craft being ridiculed.



The moral? — Use your gifts with appreciation and do not hold your audience in contempt


I spent only $6 on this novel in a sale bin. Even at that low price, I was cheated by (a) an author evidently unappreciative of his gifts and simultaneously contemptuous of his readers and (b) by a publisher too complacent to recognize that reputation can matter.


Why anyone would be so arrogant (or casually careless) as to take paying readership for granted is beyond me.


Potboiler must say something unhappy about Jesse Kellerman’s relationship with his genes or his parents.


And with so many orders of magnitude better (but unpublished) novels out there, I have no idea what G. P. Putnam’s Sons was thinking about its publishing house future.