A young American, the son of a single flight attendant and a man she met once in New Jersey, grows up poor in North Carolina. He works in an Austrian bakery, ogles a young debutante, and dreams of becoming a writer. Eventually, he wins a scholarship, goes away to school and meets the man who will become his chief rival and best friend. A third is added to their troika when the rival’s old school chum, a beautiful and fantastically rich young actress in a leopard-skin hat, appears on the scene.
Over the next decade the three swirl in and out of each other’s lives. The young American fails at writing. He steals another man’s identity, teaches journalism in Dubai, and travels the world penning fraudulent papers for rich young students in China. All the while he pines for the actress and plots to get her back, even as his own life and identity disintegrate around him.
Such is the plot of Leopards, a compelling and remarkably assured debut novel from Jansma, a Columbia writing graduate who now teaches writing himself in New York. Or at least it might be. Then again, it might not. As a narrator, the young American is fantastically unreliable, so it’s a bit hard to tell. As the novel proceeds, he changes people’s names, shifts their biographies and constantly calls into question his own version of events.
Jansma is playing here with notions of truth and narrative. But he isn’t doing so at the expense of his story. The result is a work that feels both classic and novel, a winking shuffle through narrative tropes that mines each for all the good it contains. It is, in short, a fantastic read, hopefully only the first of many to come.
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