Have you filed your taxes yet? Kick back with some taxes in fiction anyway. ‹ Literary Hub


James Folta

April 15, 2024, 2:31pm

Try as they might, the IRS can’t manage to make the vital work of tax collection simple or enjoyable. The agency can be fun-ish. They produced a Star Trek parody in 2010—fun!—but were later chastised by Congress for the production expenses—not fun! Don’t expect sequels any time soon.

Hopefully your taxes are in by now—or are at least open in another tab—but if you’re not ready to give up on the thrills of deductions just yet, here are a few tax-adjacent novels to check out.

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Although rightfully remembered more for glamorous locales and grisly murders, Highsmith’s classic opens with Tom Ripley running a tax scam out of his NYC apartment:

“Tom explained the situation briefly, and expressed surprise that Mr Reddington had not yet received the notice from the Adjusting Department.

‘That should have gone out a few days ago,’ Tom said. ‘You’ll undoubtedly get it tomorrow. We’ve been a little rushed around here.’

‘But I’ve paid my tax,’ said the alarmed voice at the other end. ‘They were all-‘

‘These things can happen, you know, when the income’s earned on a freelance basis with no withholding tax. We’ve been over your return very carefully, Mr Reddington. There’s no mistake. And we wouldn’t like to slap a lien on the office you work for or your agent or whatever-‘ Here he chuckled. A friendly, personal chuckle generally worked wonders. ‘-but we’ll, have to do that unless you pay within forty-eight hours. I’m sorry the notice hasn’t reached you before now. As I said, we’ve been pretty-‘

‘Is there anyone there I can talk to about it if I come in?’ Mr Reddington asked anxiously. ‘That’s a hell of a lot of money!’”

As someone who just filed his freelancing taxes, this passage sent chills down my spine.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Wallace’s posthumously published novel is set, in part, in an IRS office in Peoria, Illinois. This is a hard one to summarize: The book’s chapters don’t progress according to any plot, both due to Wallace’s style and the fact that the novel was assembled after his death from disparate notes and drafts. Even for a writer whose work is known for being dense, this one’s pretty dense.

According to some fact-checking, Wallace’s depiction of the IRS seems to be more or less correct, including the detail that the IRS plans to resume tax collection 30 days after a nuclear explosion. Wallace was known for his rigorous research, and The Times wrote about the writer’s process and correspondence with tax pros as he wrote The Pale King, which led to some startlingly philosophical conversations about the tax code:

“…the crushing boredom of tax work may be the gateway to transcendent ecstasy (or, in the case of one agent, actual bodily levitation).

In September 2005, Lacy sent Wallace a passage from section 509(a), ‘legendary as the most difficult sentence to understand in the tax code,’ adding: ‘I find that although I can never quite understand what it says, after I read it several times and concentrate, I can actually get into a kind of weird Zen-type meditation high! (Then again sometimes it provokes a profound anxiety attack.)’”

D. Larry Crumbley, The Ultimate Rip-Off: A Taxing Tale

Look, I haven’t read this book, but it kept popping up as I was poking around for tax novels, so I feel compelled to include it. The Ultimate Rip-Off is the first in a series by D. Larry Crumbley, a teacher and writer who focuses on Forensic Accounting, Taxation, and Petroleum Accounting, and who decided to write some didactic page-turners about the good guys of taxes.

Interviewed for an article about The Pale King,” Crumbley described his novels as both fun and educational: “‘All of my novels have massive plots, and I kill a lot of people…If I teach a tax principle and it involves someone getting shot, people will remember that.’”

The reviews agree: “The book is a treasure trove of IRS policy and procedure spelled out in detail and integrated into the plot,” says Tax Notes State. Not for everyone, but these books might make a good read for any accounting students in your life.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens’ classic of historical fiction is set during the French Revolution, and features some pretty scathing indictments of the ravages of the pre-Revolutionary French government:

“Expressive signs of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.”

And if all the tax forms you just finished weren’t dry enough and you’re looking for more dry reading, check out this piece that The British Tax Review published a few years back entitled “Boz Among the Radicals,” on Dickens’ influence on 19th-century British debates around the window tax and the income tax.

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light

Mantel’s masterful trilogy following Thomas Cromwell wrapped up with my favorite of the three, The Mirror & The Light. As Cromwell reaches the apex of his power before his fall, he deals intimately with the administration of the state, including the influx of taxes and levying consequences against those who might resist them:

“They say they want no taxes and will pay none, and they protest against imposts never levied and never imagined. And as the king says to him — when did you hear of a tax so light and pleasant that every man clamoured to pay it?”

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