How 'The Pesthouse' Became 'Useless America'
by Dick Donahue [April's full disclosure here: Dick must be of "a certain age" – does anyone really go by "Dick" now? My kid always cracks up when a character is named "Dick." ]
Did you hear the one about how one book turned into another book—and that the second book didn't really exist? It all started last fall when Useless America, a new book by thriller writer Jim Crace, showed up on Amazon.uk, with Viking Penguin named as publisher. Amazon offered a persuasive "Our Price" discount and trumpeted the novel via e-mails to customers who had purchased any of Crace's earlier books. The slight hitch was, there was no such book. As Crace puts it, "As the named author of Useless America, I'm looking forward to my first sight of it." Here is what happened.
When Doubleday/Nan Talese was preparing to publish Crace's The Pesthouse, a postapocalyptic novel along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the first line of the book was going to be "This used to be America." Through an error in transposition (Crace guesses "someone at Penguin couldn't type, possibly, or someone at Amazon was hard of hearing") "used to" became "Useless" and voilà: Useless America entered the world of books. Crace explains that Viking Penguin in the U.K. "published" a hardcover edition (keep in mind: no such book) last fall, and he adds that "the truly impecunious" can wait until this September when the paperback comes out at £7.99. Still don't believe us? Check out the listing at Amazon.co.uk (complete with ISBNs) or heed Crace's advice: "Order your copy, while stocks last." (The Pesthouse was published in the U.K. last month, and will come out in the U.S. May 1).
Doubleday, in the interest of preserving its reputation—"and because we thought it was hilarious," said publicity director Nicole Dewey—"published" the nonbook, Useless America. At first glance, the trade paperback seems real enough—it comes complete with dedication: "The author does not wish to thank his editor, his publisher, or his agent. He is not grateful to any of his wives for their support. He is indebted to computers." But other than a three-page explication of the work and the obligatory "Note About the Editor" and "Note About the Type," this 258-page tome is blank. But there's more. Powell's Books is holding an epigraph-writing contest (do fill up the space we presume), 75 winners of which will receive signed copies of Useless America. We say, Useless is as Useless does.