Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice
Tom Williams' engrossing debut novel, The Mimic's Own Voice, relates the rise and fall of Douglas Myles, the world-famous professional mimic. If "world-famous" and "mimic" sound strange in the same sentence - most people, myself included, could name only Rich Little among mimics - it's not so strange given Williams' great skill at creating an alternate yet convincing culture in which stage comedians (not just Letterman/Leno/Conan TV-interviewer types) enjoy elite status in the entertainment industry and the United States is blanketed with sold-out comedy clubs and universities are filled with Comedic Studies academics.
Myles is a brilliant, unique talent who reaches the peak of the comedy profession decades after the mimics' heyday, and in fact as the only mimic of his day. And he does so without actually having an act or, more accurately, without writing any of his own material. Instead he vocally duplicates, to utter perfection, the comic routines of other comedians, from the one-liner (vaudeville) comics through the mimics, social critics and observational comics which developed over the decades. Then, after he has nothing left to accomplish in replicating other comics, he switches to a participatory show in which he mimics the voices of audience members, first after hearing them recite details of their lives and then, almost impossibly, before ever hearing them speak. Later, after a long seclusion leaves the public starving for his next act, he unveils a quite poignant but short-lived presentation which totally bewilders audiences and critics alike, and effectively ends his career.
All of the above might sound audacious and unbelievable, yet Williams deftly pulls it off. The book is written as a fictional biography of Myles, with the tone being learned but not academic (no jargon), with the narrator's distance from the subject allowing Myles' incredible talent to be described without having to explain just how the prodigy came to be. (The narrator never met the reclusive Myles, who left behind only a brief manuscript memoir as insight to his private life.) There is little dialogue involving Myles, with most of the narrative being the narrator's presentation of the known facts of Myles' life as well as the commentary of various critics. The narrator even establishes a chronology of various comic genres (one-liners, mimics, social critics, observational comics), which indeed roughly follows comedy's timeline over the past century. Further, although Williams completely manufactures the top performers, each genre is described in a familiar enough manner that the reader can easily recognize each genre and its real-life stars (Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). This familiar parallel goes a long way toward selling the plausibility of Douglas Myles, or at least making it much easier for the reader to suspend disbelief.
Williams immerses the reader in a culture which is completely fictional, yet familiar enough to be believed. And somehow he makes the reader care about the aloof and retiring Douglas Myles, despite how little is truly known about the mimic's inner life. The Mimic's Own Voice is a quietly stunning debut from a writer of great promise, a truly unique book which gets my highest recommendation.