The nine stories in Jonathan Lethem’s new collection reaffirm his balletic elasticity with language. Lethem’s words execute graceful turns and explosive leaps to whatever tempo he sets. At times, the narrative fails to match the choreography. Promising scenarios are resolved anticlimactically.
Do not be discouraged, though. Rewards await the reader who commits to this slim volume. While Lethem may not be “the king of sentences,” a sobriquet he affixes to one of his characters, Lucky Alan is a beguiling addition to a shelf full of uniquely inventive books by a master of genres with a legitimate claim to the much-contested throne.
Literary style is uppermost in the minds of the two young protagonists of The King of Sentences. They worship a reclusive Salingeresque writer who resides in a small town. Knowing little of the man, yet obsessed with his prose, they pay him an unwelcome visit. The police chief warns them about this local celebrity: “I’m just wondering if you ever troubled with the content of his books, as opposed to just the sentences.” Even when the warning proves true, with the King treating his supplicants cruelly, they can’t shake the spell. Tiptoe around idols, boys and girls, lest you trip over their clay feet.
The hero of The Porn Critic is something of a literary stylist too. Kromer is a graduate student who works at a sex shop. “There [he] retailed chunky purple phalluses, vials of space-age lubricant, silver balls and beads for insertions, latex dolphins with oscillating beaks.”
He also has to review all the videos that come in, for the shop’s newsletter. As a result, his apartment is full of X-rated box covers. “The disarranged piles melded into a wallpaper of ludicrous fronts and slashes of pink, brown, and yellow flesh ... the job was chiefly a matter of inventorying characteristics, tabulating spurts and lashings.”
One night he invites three women, one of whom he has a crush on, into his “mansion of smut.” Is he socially inept or an unconscious self-saboteur? Whatever the reason, not surprisingly the sight of his hardcore library snuffs out the possibility of romance. In fact, Kromer winds up with vomit — “stinky action painting,” Lethem colorfully calls it — on his rug. But our hapless friend gets lucky, sort of, in the end. He becomes what he beheld, a porn critic-turned-actor, submitting blithely to debauched direction.
Procedure in Plain Air tackles a more serious subject, in a surreal manner. Stevick is drinking coffee at a Starbuck’s on one seemingly ordinary day when strange men appear and start digging a hole in the street. When they finish they bring out a prisoner from their truck, bound and gagged, and lower him into the hole. They cover it and then prepare to leave. No one protests. The people in the coffee shop are annoyed at the jackhammering, not the human rights violation taking place right before their eyes.
Stevick steps forward, but his good intentions are turned against him; or rather, this unemployed citizen, recently dumped by his girlfriend, soon discovers the exact price of his soul. The story is a brilliant meditation on evil. When a society abnegates moral responsibility, the unthinkable becomes not just thinkable but mainstream.
Other stories disappoint. Pending Vegan has a terrific opening line: “Paul Espeseth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at Sea World.” Will an orca attack? I defy anyone to come up with a better description of this mammal than the following: “The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelley eyes, were God’s glorious lethal clowns. ... Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer.” But this isn’t the Blackfish documentary. Nothing really happens to Paul or his family.
Same goes for the title story, which is about a lonely software consultant who tries to strike up a friendship with his neighbor, a theater director. Lethem’s technique is flawless. But I was left scratching my head.
Although Lethem — author of Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude and Dissident Gardens, among others — is a novelist at heart, he has acquitted himself well with the shorter form in two prior collections. These new stories may not always work, but their eclecticism shows that their author continues to venture outside the periphery, to inoculate himself against complacency through a protocol of self-imposed challenges.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.