Staying on the Literary Radar
John Vorhaus’ latest novel, The Texas Twist, brings back his charming con-man protagonist, Radar Hoverlander.
By Scarlet Cheng 07/01/2013
Writer John Vorhaus had just returned from a business trip to Norway the day before, and he was already squeezing in one appointment after the other. He’d been invited to Norway to lecture on writing and performing comedy at a national conference for stand-up comics. (Yes, they have them in Norway.) He’s an old hand at giving workshops and has written several books on writing comedy for television and film, including The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not, in print for nearly two decades. While stand-up is not his forte, he admits he was happy to have a paid trip to Norway. “When they said, ‘Do you have something to say to stage people?’ I said, ‘I have plenty to say!’”
Indeed, over coffee at a Starbucks in Pasadena, it’s clear Vorhaus has plenty to say in general and seems to be in a hurry to say it all. A compact, bald man with wraparound sunglasses, he has brought his “bodyguard” with him, his adorable shih tzu, Temp — so named because when he and his wife took him in, they thought it would be only temporary. (Eight years later, Temp still lives in their Monrovia home.) He has a multi-faceted career, which includes writing both fiction and nonfiction, as well as teaching.
Vorhaus loves playing with words. The name of his protagonist, Radar Hoverlander, was inspired by technology for landing probes on other planets. “There was a time they used a technology called the ‘radar-guided hoverlanding device,’” says Vorhaus. “It would deposit its cargo, then fly away and crash. With my random creativity, I said that sounds like a good name for a character. Probably a con artist, especially if you make it part of his mystique. In The California Roll, an ongoing question is: Is Radar Hoverlander his actual, real name?”
In The Texas Twist’s opening chapter, Radar takes on an alias, Olivier de Havilland — a play on the name of movie actress Olivia de Havilland. The two other members of Radar’s grift gang, Allie Quinn and Vic Mirplo, also have memorable monikers. Allie is also Radar’s pregnant girlfriend, which introduces new complications to the plot — including, naturally, naming rights for the newborn.
After the successful conclusion of the opening caper, the crew is taking a little break in a condo complex in Austin, Texas. They’ve befriended neighbor Sarah Crandall, whose son has a rare and fatal disease. Out of the blue, a stranger named Adam Ames offers a possible cure, saying his own son died of the disease and his only desire now is to help others. The one hitch? The Swiss clinic where this cure is being developed might need a bit of funding. Radar smells a con: When something’s too good to be true, it usually is. As a grifter himself, his suspicions are naturally aroused.
Texas Twist is the name of a real-life scam, a variation on the classic Three-Card Monte con, in which a mark bets on a card game — and wins, except the winnings get switched on him because everyone else in the game is in on the con. Vorhaus redefines the term for his own purposes, and the reader is kept wondering who’s conning whom and who’s aware of what. The author enjoys interweaving fact and fiction, what’s real and what’s made up, and that includes words. For example, the word “bafflegab” is used throughout the book, and it’s a real one, meaning “double-talk” or “gobbledygook.” However, another Vorhaus favorite, “fabricat,” is a made-up word, but you can guess at its meaning, especially in context. It means a fabrication and, in Radar’s world, often an elaborate one.
Vorhaus is also a screenwriter, having penned TV scripts for Married… with Children, Head of the Class and The Sentinel. His nonfiction includes the aforementioned how-to’s on writing, and he has also written volumes about gambling. Yes, gambling.
He has produced nine books on poker, including Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-limit Texas Hold Em (Huntington Press; 2011), co-written with noted professional poker champ Annie Duke. Like many of his books, it is full of pithy observations, delivered with a comic twist. “Every time we can force our opponents into a bad decision, we win,” the book says. “Notice that nowhere in this discussion have I said that making money is the goal. Why isn’t it? Simple. Making money is not the goal. Money, in this game, is just the fallout from good goal-setting and decision-making… Money is merely our scorekeeper.”
Vorhaus is already working on the sequel to The Texas Twist, which will find Radar in a radically different situation from the first three books, as previewed in the novel’s epilogue. He says the writing is going smoothly. “I work very hard, and I’ve reached a point in my writing career where I don’t have to worry four out of five minutes if one out of five minutes is any good,” Vorhaus says.
He sets a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. “When I’m in stride, I can knock that off in two, three, four hours. I have a certain sense of urgency — I’ve got a lot of books to write before I die,” says the 57-year-old author. “It’s not that I have an incurable disease; I’m just interested in writing as much as I can while I can.”