Cooking the Books

Grove/Atlantic tests its recipe for prefab classics with Leif Enger's literary potboiler Peace Like a River

If you visit a bookstore between now and the end of the year, it's a safe bet you'll walk smack into a heap of Peace Like a River, the debut novel of former Minnesota Public Radio correspondent Leif Enger. Perhaps an adjacent placard will advise you to "discover" this promising new writer from Osakis, Minnesota. A salesperson may even guide you gently toward the book.

Ever the wary consumer, you might take a moment to scan the blurbs on the book's jacket. At which point you'll be assuaged by raves so superlative-laden they'd make Sony's fantasy film critic, David Manning, blush. Rick Bass, we learn, finds Peace Like a River, "the loveliest of gifts, a truly great book, into which the reader can sink deliciously and completely." And no less an august literary personage than Frank McCourt assures us that the book is "seductive and deliciously American and there are passages so wondrous and wise you'll want to claw yourself with pleasure." You may wonder in passing when "delicious" became the preferred adjective of blurbologists, or whether you really want to spend a weekend clawing yourself. But you might reasonably assume that any book that gets McCourt so breathless he forgets to punctuate is a worthy investment.

The fuss surrounding Peace Like a River is inescapable. The book's publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, ordered an initial print run of 100,000 copies--unheard-of for a debut work by an unknown writer--and is supporting the novel with an equally unprecedented $150,000 marketing campaign. "We knew from the beginning we had a great product," says Grove/Atlantic marketing director Judy Hottensen. "It may look from the outside like it's effortless, but we've been working our tails off to get the word out. It's a very old-fashioned kind of selling: We fly around a lot, talk to people about the book, get people talking to the author."

According to Tom Bielenberg, a buyer at St. Paul's Ruminator, Grove/Atlantic put particular effort into talking the title up to the nation's independent bookstores. "They're very good at spreading the word way ahead of time," he says. "This is definitely one of the books that people here have been talking about."

To Bielenberg, it's clear that Grove/Atlantic is hoping to revisit its success with another first novel, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. (Elisabeth Schmitz, the editor who acquired Frazier's novel, also worked on Enger's.) Cold Mountain, which began with a modest initial print run of 25,000, built through word of mouth and "hand-selling" by independent booksellers into the publishing gold strike of 1997, moving an eventual 1.6 million hardcover copies. In addition to being a major financial score, Bielenberg explains, Cold Mountain gave Grove/Atlantic credibility to burn with book buyers and independent sellers. "When you have that kind of success, for some years afterward you're inclined to give them more than the time of day," he says.

As much as is possible in this age of counterfeit enthusiasm, Cold Mountain was a bolt of lightning from clear skies. This time around, though, Grove Atlantic left nothing to chance--they're practically standing on the roof with a golf club in the air. Beginning almost a year before Peace Like a River's September 20 national-release date, the publisher began placing ads in Publishers Weekly to drum up interest, and distributing thousands of advance copies to reviewers and bookstores across the country. Their preemptive saturation bombing worked: At this year's Book Expo America, the publishing industry's massive annual gathering, Peace was unofficially coronated the next Cold Mountain. Further promoting the comparison, Atlantic has even re-enlisted the same blurbists (Rick Bass, a stalwart raver, said of Cold Mountain, "It seems even possible to never want to read another book, so wonderful is this one.") Pre-publication blurbs ought to be read with a jaundiced eye, of course. A cynic might suspect, for instance, that McCourt (who happens to share a literary agent with Enger) was picked mostly for name recognition--a rarefied cousin to the celebrities hawking acne cream on late-night television.

Whatever the case, Atlantic's investment in hype is paying dividends: Before its publication, Enger's novel was optioned for a film by the producer of Chocolat and Jaws, sold for publication in eight foreign markets, selected by the Book of the Month Club, and scheduled to appear as both an audio book and a Reader's Digest Select Edition. Somehow, Peace Like a River even managed to sneak onto a number of bestseller lists before it was widely available in bookstores. And early reviews gushingly compared the book not only to Cold Mountain but also to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye.

"Peace Like a River is one that will stay with you for a while," reads a typical rave in The Denver Post. "It's not likely you'll read a better piece of fiction this year. Go out and get a copy; savor it."

Peace Like a River, perhaps the most assiduously manufactured sleeper hit in history, has been canonized faster than Mother Teresa--and essentially before anyone outside the publishing world has had the chance to read it.

 

Which raises the question, What of the book itself? Set in early-1960s rural Minnesota, Peace Like a River concerns the travels and travails of the Land family. This brood consists of a father and three precocious siblings: the severely asthmatic Reuben, who narrates the novel; his eight-year-old sister Swede, who writes epic poetry based on Zane Grey novels; and Davy, an Eagle Scout-type older brother who's handy with firearms.

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