Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is clearly an accomplished and, at times, brilliant writer. If it were only a matter of judging his playfulness, innovation, and enthusiasm-sheer energy-it would be hard to imagine him scoring higher. For example, one of his conceits, Datum Centurio, features a hard copy version of a future (2096) dictionary which defines “date.” In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages) the innovative “story” mimics the complete typographical layout of a real dictionary and notes to the effect that with “compatible hardware” (e.g., a neural plug) we could get the entire “pentasensory” (i.e., virtual reality) illustrative support. The dictionary definition traces the ancestral origins of date to earlier in the century (i.e., our time) when the term was Continue reading

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

The night after I finished this book I found myself before a slot machine in a small casino. I had a feeling and put a quarter in. I won and won again. I stuffed the quarters in my pockets but there were no buckets available. When I lost two quarters in a row I left. Unfortunately this was a dream and I awoke empty handed. Bob the Gambler (Mariner Books, 224) is a beautifully observed, enviably perfect novel by a master who doesn’t seem flashy because he stays within his means. It is also a surprisingly, even surreally loving story. The novel centers around the fissioned nuclear family of down-on-his luck Biloxi architect Ray Kaiser, a plump transplant moved by the Mississippi coastal decay before it was invaded by “gussied-up Motel 6 hotel Continue reading

The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories by Frederick Barthelme

Although seemingly simply written, these are some of the most sophisticated stories I have ever read. Barthelme is so even tempered, so subtly loving, and so good at fixing upon key details that bring a scene to life that his work is both a joy to read and a reward to study. His subject, the “New South,” with its strip malls and pierced adolescents, is much less differentiated than Faulkner’s, and much less expansive than Hemingway’s grandiose global stage of writerly operations. Yet Barthelme’s prose is more than up to Continue reading

Because They Wanted to: Stories by Mary Gaitskill

Because They Wanted to (Scribner, 256 pages).  Mary Gaitskill is the real thing, as Hem said about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Coke says about itself. She is one of those writers you feel writes in black blood, and only tells lies to clarify the truth. Like Bukowski, she is attracted to the ugly truth far more than representation of the beautiful or the good. Her detailed descriptions of female pixies and the inexorable pivots on which their love lives slip into what would be despair if they were not so inured to pain from its constant presence, her often seamless use of flashbacks in narrators or protagonists chaotically attracted Continue reading

The Vanishing Moon by Joseph Coulson

Whereas we in the west speak of, and see, a “man” on the moon, the Chinese tell stories of and see a rabbit on the moon. Poet, playwright, and editor Joseph Coulson’s great first novel The Vanishing Moon (Archipelago Books, 330 pages) is hardly focused on the moon and yet it is, one might say, focused on the vanishing of beautiful things for which the elusive moon is a most, perhaps the most, romantic emblem: a unique book of pressed wildflowers; the innocence of children playing in the woods before they become conscious of a humiliating poverty; and the exceptional beauty of the unconsummated (preserving the sublime) over the requited (wallowing in the mire) Continue reading

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Rarely does it seem that a great writer is recognized in his time, but Ian McEwan is an exception. Using the trope of two black mastiffs left behind by the Gestapo but still menacing the beautiful French countryside, in Black Dogs (Nan A. Talese, 149 pages) McEwan tells the tale of an older couple June and Bernard Tremaine, living in different countries but still in love. The clever narrator, their son-in-law whose own parents died when he was eight, pieces together the interlacing of the private lives and world events of his adoptive parents from deathbed interviews with once-stunningly beautiful June and her big-chinned rational Marxist politician husband. The action toggles in space and Continue reading