Small Wonder: 17-Year-Old Firebrand Novelist Does New York

The boy from Alabama who recently threw a punch at the New York literary world in an intense, widely read letter to The New York Times Book Review came through town this past weekend. Alec Niedenthal, 17, had been to the city once before, but not since his vaguely threatening manifesto made him a micro-celebrity among literary types here and brought him to the attention of literary agents and editors.

In his letter, Alec warned that “the next Great American Novel will come not from Pynchon, [Foster] Wallace, DeLillo (he’s already had his turn anyway) or any other of your literary heroes” but rather “from the iMac-fettered keyboards of the young, challenging, Facebook-and-MySpace-addled minds that you have so hastily jettisoned as literary jetsam. …”

Could he be talking about himself? Some publishing people, perhaps hungry for the next big (young) thing, thought he was. And so, on Monday afternoon around 5 p.m., Alec went to the HarperCollins building and met with Kevin Callahan, a young editor there who’d seen the letter and written to Alec on Facebook. The two of them exchanged some e-mails; Alec told Mr. Callahan about the books he was reading, and the novel he was writing himself. He’d told a few other people about the novel already. Susan Golomb—Jonathan Franzen’s literary agent—was one. Jofie Ferrari-Adler, an editor at Grove/Atlantic, was another. Both of them wrote to Alec after reading his letter and wanted to know if he had written anything they could see.

Mr. Callahan was the only one who met with him on his trip. Alec really enjoyed it.

“I was kind of anxious and nervous to meet important people,” he recalled that night. “At first we just talked about books, mostly stuff that he had published in his division. He gave me a couple books that he had published.” Alec paused after he said this for about 30 seconds to finish typing out a text message. “He also gave me this,” he added, indicating a totebag, “which is really cool. I’ve never really had a totebag before.”

As for the novel, part of which Mr. Callahan had read: “It follows three impressionable, sort of naive, romantic kids who go on this sort of introspective road trip and end up in Washington DC, and get embroiled in a kind of secretive conflict between Homeland Security and a band of revolutionist bloggers called SMUT, who are angry at the unrepentant invasions of privacy perpetrated by Homeland Security and end up bombing the Capitol because of it.

“We didn’t discuss it too much. He just told me he liked it but that I needed to tighten it up.”

Alec said he had started revising in light of Mr. Callahan’s comments. “Tonight I went through the first 30 pages of the book and just tightened the shit out of it.”

lneyfakh@observer.com

Small Wonder: 17-Year-Old Firebrand Novelist Does New York