The Deed, A Novel

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9780743223874: The Deed, A Novel

A hip and hilarious debut novel about a twentysomething guy searching for love, for meaning...and for a long-lost deed that could make him heir to the island of Manhattan


Meet Jason Hansvoort, a single New Yorker with a curious knack for surviving near-death experiences. Wistful about college, apprehensive about the future, he's currently flailing around in post-college limbo as low man on the totem pole at one of Madison Avenue's "Big Five" ad agencies, impatiently waiting for the Next Thing to happen.

And then one day he's approached by Amanda, an attractive young law student and one of the last members of the Manahata, the Native American tribe who sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch almost four hundred years ago. She's spent years on the trail of a lost document that supposedly gave ownership of Manhattan to a seventeenth-century benefactor and all his descendants. She believes Jason's the last of this line...and therefore heir to the island of Manhattan and everything on it. If they can find the deed, that is. Jason's skeptical...but enchanted enough to play along.

If Jason and Amanda can indeed locate the deed, the consequences will be tremendous and far reaching: grave for millions of landowners and mortal for every title insurance company on the Eastern seaboard. There are literally billions at stake, and when a dysfunctional New York City crime family looking for a big break picks up the scent, it places Jason's streak of surviving near-death experiences in peril.

Informed by Blanchard's gift for dead-on observation and pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, The Deed heralds the arrival of a fresh comic voice in contemporary literary fiction.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Keith Blanchard is the editor in chief of Maxim magazine and has contributed articles to numerous other publications, including Glamour, Cosmopolitan, US, Redbook, Marie Claire, and TV Guide. A former staff writer for Comedy Central's Wastes of Time, he has written episodes for The Drew Carey Show and has appeared on the Today show and The Oprah Winfrey Show, among others. He lives with his family in New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

MANHATTAN, 1999


THURSDAY, 9:05 A.M.

COLUMBUS CIRCLE

As Jason Hansvoort stepped off the curb and into the path of the oncoming taxi, his eyes never wavered. From a park bench on the far side of the street dangled a pair of female legs, sweetly agape, their northern reaches discreetly sheathed in a slack blue-jean wrap skirt. It was this steadily improving celestial view that had blotted out all earthly considerations; a last, curious image absurdly poised to fizzle with his soul into universal static at the crush of metal and bone.

Had Jason peripherally glimpsed the yellow behemoth bearing down on him, or heard the anguished squeal of badly abused brakes, or otherwise sensed the rusty creak of the scissors yawning open to snip short the thread of his life, there might have been just enough time to pointlessly brace for the impact. But he remained oblivious, right to the end. His perception of the event did not collapse into a series of staccato images, like photographs flipping through his consciousness; he did not suddenly see all the colors of the world framed in unusual clarity. His life in no way flashed before his eyes, even as a deadly metallic juggernaut the color of sunshine desperately ground to a halt a few feet from his knees.

"Asshole!" shouted the irate Indian cabdriver, leaning out the window. "Doo you tink dot you are Shuperman?" he wondered angrily. In the center of his turban, a purple stone glowed dully.

Suddenly the world was filled with sound and light, and Jason's brain scrambled to untangle the knot of input that assaulted his senses: the braying of horns, the pungent incense of burnt rubber and roasted peanuts, the sudden, undeniable presence of a steaming vehicle practically in his lap.

"My bad," Jason mumbled reflexively, heart belatedly thudding as he rewound, stepping backward onto the curb.

The morning crowd took little notice, but here and there pockets of diverted bystanders watched expectantly, hoping for further drama from the scene. A single white male, twenty-three and reasonably good-looking in dirty blond hair and a clean gray suit, Jason saw himself reflected in their eyes as the perfect urban straight man for a bit of cosmic slapstick. Any minute now, his briefcase would unlatch comically and scatter white papers like doves all across Columbus Circle, to roars of canned laughter.

"Asshole!" the cabbie repeated apoplectically, punctuating his rage with a cryptic two-handed gesture that was probably quite obscene in his country of origin. Without waiting for a response, he floored the pedal with another screech and exited, stage right.

"That's Mr. Asshole to you, buddy," said Jason bravely into the cabbie's exhaust, but his audience had already dispersed.

Jason's near-death experiences were the stuff of legend among his friends. He had fallen in front of a city bus; he had toppled, arms windmilling in the expected way, from the edge of a subway platform, clambering to safety just in time. He had witnessed a stabbing outside the Port Authority bus terminal late one night, scarcely ten feet from him, a noisy act of public violence that had sent adrenaline shooting around his bloodstream like fireworks trapped in an air-conditioning duct. In Washington Square, two summers ago, he'd been part of a crowd that had scattered like spilled marbles when a limousine hopped the curb and careened into the park, killing two Ohio tourists paralyzed by the sheer interestingness of what was unfolding. The limo had also critically injured a street mime performing at the time; the poor bastard's animated back spasms were misinterpreted by many as a sick attempt at black humor.

Jason reached behind the knot of his tie to undo the "choke" button, as onlookers lost their cohesion and devolved into the usual pedestrian chaos, and the traffic stream reassuringly resumed its course. From a rational standpoint, he had long suspected these recurrent near misses could not be attributed to mere chance. But warning himself to be more careful was an empty ritual; it always felt disturbingly as if he were trying to be his own parents.

Jason switched back to his left hand a burgundy hand-tooled leather briefcase, the gift of his mother and father on the occasion of his landing his first real job, at Young & Rubicam advertising. The case's elegance belied Jason's moderate income -- it was pretentious and overstated, relentlessly adult, and it had always felt somehow wrong in his hand, though of course he would never part with it now. He stretched the knuckles of his free hand, wiped the palm on the convenient leg of his trousers. Once more unto the breach, my friend, he rallied himself, looking uptown and downtown like a five-year-old. When the light changed, he stepped into the crosswalk and successfully forded New York's only traffic circle.

One bystander waited a moment, then stealthily crossed the street after Jason, following him to the far corner and watching him head east on 59th Street, holding safely to the sidewalk along the southern edge of Central Park. She peered after his retreating figure for a moment before leaning lightly against a utility pole, dizzy with relief. Glancing down, the stranger saw that her hands were actually shaking, and she thrust them into the pockets of her raincoat as she glanced around, inscrutable behind cheap sunglasses.

If she'd been looking for a sign that the iron was hot, this surely had been it. The screech of the taxi's brakes had chilled her heart; twenty yards or so behind, she'd found herself literally unable to scream or even speak, incapable indeed of any action beyond groping spastically toward him as if trying to propel him to safety through the sheer force of her panic. Now she closed her eyes, relaxed, and breathed deeply, seeking out a familiar inner pool of strength, not yet to tap it, but simply to reassure herself that it was intact and primed.

Jason had turned out to be as expected: somewhere around twenty-five or so, she guessed, roughly her own age. A nice coincidence. In closeup he had genial, good-guy looks: tall, with green eyes and blond hair. No wedding ring, which presumably meant no children -- the important thing, of course. He seemed approachable, anyway...but perhaps that was hope speaking. The thrill of the prospect of fulfilling a destiny more than three hundred years in the making was tempered by visceral worries: apprehension at the sheer weight of the task ahead, and a dread of ramifications unknown.

When her eyes opened, the girl was pleased to find that her clever hands had drawn two cigarettes from the pack in her coat pocket. She lit one and inhaled deeply, snapping the other cigarette in half and grinding its broken body into the sidewalk with the toe of her cowboy boot. Stepping lightly over the legs of a sprawled homeless person clad in a mink coat mottled with red spray paint, she hopped the four-foot crumbling brownstone wall that girdles Central Park and disappeared into its abruptly green interior.

* * *

Jason hit the light switch of his office and laid his suit jacket over the back of the extra chair, where it promptly doubled over in a half gainer and collapsed onto the seat. Seven point five from the Russian judge, he mused. That's gotta be a disappointment. The voice-mail indicator on his phone console blinked sleepily in the sudden light.

After grimly zipping through the familiar sequence of buttons that would play back his messages on speakerphone, Jason took up a position by the window, clasping his hands behind his back and flaring his nostrils like an executive. The view was dominated by the imposing glass-and-steel forest of Midtown's skyscrapers. But twenty-six flights below, Madison Avenue snaked along the base of his building in multicolored scales of morning traffic, and at the extreme right of the view, up beyond the East 60s, a small but treasured corner of grassy park could be glimpsed -- slightly more, if he pressed his cheek against the glass.

There were two messages. Nick, his best friend from Princeton, called to relate "a tale of disgusting, unspeakable debauchery that I hope you'll find inspiring," and to remind him about their lunch today. Jason smiled at this, anticipating a welcome break from his usual solo routine.

The other message was less benign. Pete Halloran, his project manager, wanted him to come around to his office as soon he got the chance, and could he please bring the Hair Peace file. Jason's lip curled into an involuntary sneer as his easy morning dipped sharply toward earth, flames streaming from both engines.

Jason's sudden gloom didn't spring from the fear of reprisal. Halloran was a notorious soft touch, relaxed and genial to an absolute fault, the textbook hands-off manager. But Hair Peace -- the nightmare of the moment, an ill-conceived combination hair gel and scalp treatment -- had stubbornly thwarted Jason's every attempt at a coherent positioning strategy. After two weeks of gale-force brainstorming, the requested file remained a pitifully thin manila sandwich. And while he thought Halloran genuinely understood the problems endemic to the new account, Jason's continuing failure to come up with a creative breakthrough appeared, to himself if not yet to his boss, more and more of a personal statement.

"Knock, knock," said a voice at his half-open door, to a harmonizing chorus of knuckles, and they swept in.

It was Nivens and Walters, an inseparable pair of dorks from personnel who periodically swooped down on Jason's office like wacky sitcom neighbors. Nivens was the more loathsome of the two, small and froggy, with a shockingly pale freckled face framed by thinning orange clown hair. Walters, bald and pear shaped, wore ridiculous Buddy Holly glasses on a face billowing with flabby jowls and permanently transfixed by a snarky, murderous smile.

By virtue of their positions, perhaps, the two had an inside line on company gossip, and for some arcane reason usually invited Jason to feast on the first fruits of their inside knowledge. For all his disdain, though, he could never quite bring himself to throw them out. They were legendary office fixtures, and their intermittent presence suggested some mythic, eternal quality that he had no right to challenge; therefore, he endured them patiently.

"Howdy," he said.

"Nice tie," said Walters, with an oddly brazen sincerity that stopped just short of sarcasm.

"Thanks." Jason had no idea what tie he was wearing and resisted the temptation to investigate. "Made it myself."

"Yeah...right," Nivens replied nerdily. Walters -- who did little of the talking, although he gave most of the knowing glances -- slapped his hands on his formidable paunch and looked slowly around the office, nodding his head in a way Jason found deeply disconcerting.

"So what's up, guys?" said Jason, feeling itchy and unproductive. "I'm kind of in a rush this morning."

"Nothing much," said Walters. "How was your weekend?"

"Fine," Jason replied woodenly. "And yours?"

"Oh, you know," said Nivens. "The usual."

Jason tried to will some dramatic event into being to break up the tedious scene that loomed -- the long and terrible endgame of extracting from these two the information they were so desperately eager to unload. A terrified executive bursts through the door, gurgling blood and clawing at a knife in his back, and does a face plant into the fica; a muscular reptilian arm crashes up through the floor, splitting the carpet and dragging somebody screaming down to hell.

"Someone get fired, or something?" Jason prodded, opening his briefcase and removing an orange from an infinitely wrinkled brown paper bag inside. As Nivens and Walters looked sideways at each other, he began denuding the fruit, tossing the little orange scabs with practiced ease over the edge of his desk, where they dropped through the miniature hoop that hung above his wastebasket, just out of sight.

Suddenly he paused, thumb buried in orange rind, and looked up slowly, scanning both of their idiotic faces. "Wait a minute. It's not me, is it?"

Nivens smiled slightly. "No, it's not you, you paranoid asshole."

Jason nodded suspiciously. "But it's somebody."

The pair again exchanged schoolgirl glances. "Okay," Nivens gave in. "Let's just say somebody's leaving. But it's not official yet, so don't spread it around. We're only telling you this because it concerns you directly." He paused as if expecting still more encouragement, but Jason abstained by popping an orange segment into his mouth.

"It's your boss," said Walters in a melodramatic whisper.

"My boss?" mumbled Jason semicoherently through the citrus, keeping up a show of disinterest. "Who, which boss? Halloran?" Since the merger with Grey, his company had become the biggest of the Big Five ad firms, and "boss" now had all kinds of orders of magnitude.

But Nivens grinned impishly and touched his finger to his nose. "Bingo," he confirmed, and Jason resisted the impulse to smash the fruit into that pasty little face.

"That's a stupid rumor," declared Jason. "A month ago, you told me we were supposedly getting bought by Disney/ABC. Where the hell do you guys hear this crap?"

"Don't get your panties in a bunch," Nivens assured him. "You're not scheduled to go down with the ship. Even if you don't get along with the new guy, you'll probably just get shifted to another account group."

"Or the new gal," chimed in Walters.

"Or the new gal," Nivens agreed.

But Jason was shaking his head. "I don't think so," he declared, out of equal parts loyalty and conviction. "Halloran's the golden boy." He looked down at his hands, then the orange, a suddenly pointless prop, and set it down, trying to maintain a credible nonchalance.

"Suit yourself," shrugged Nivens. "But I get his file cabinet."

"You can have it," said Walters. "I get his office."

"You can't call offices," said Nivens. "They're assigned, you moron."

"Guys, thanks for the scoop," said Jason, holding up his hands as if preparing to applaud, "but I've really gotta get some work done."

"Beware, O unbeliever," said Nivens. "Seriously, though, you didn't hear anything from us."

"I certainly didn't," said Jason. "Mark my words, gentlemen: Halloran will still be here when we're all wearing mahogany overcoats."

After they finally left, Jason sat in quiet contemplation for a few moments. He'd never bothered to track the always-dire forecasts of the Brothers Grim over his three years of employment, but they seemed to be right at least half of the time, making them difficult to dismiss out of hand. It was preposterous...and yet, there the notion remained, a grinning barnacle securely attached to his forebrain.

His still-tentative grasp of office politics encouraged him to keep the information under his hat, although he had no idea what private use he could possibly make of it. In the end, he based his decision to say nothing to hi...

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