Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
by Amy Hempel
Scribner, May 2006, 403 pages, $27.50

The characters in this collection’s 48 stories are full of odd bits of advice. A few of these are little more than cute — plug an ice cream cone with a marshmallow to keep the bottom from dripping — but many bring the reader a resonating, smile-dissolving chill. “Here’s a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep,” a character in one story says. “I sleep in my husband’s bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.” A woman in another story passes along a police officer’s advice to always keep your doorknobs polished: “When someone breaks in,” the officer told her, “we can get clear prints.”

Hempel’s stories are both low-key and off-key, and part of their power comes from the author’s ability to give characters unexpected routes to essential realizations. “Once I had food poisoning,” a character recalls, “and realized I was trapped inside my body.”

There are many brief stories here, including several that come and go with little impact, but the collection’s treasure is the 70-page novella “Tumble Home,” in which a young woman in a psychiatric institution writes to a famous painter she met just once. Like the others in this rich and original collection, she attempts to endure both bad advice — “buy oversized furniture so as to look small and delicate when curled up in a chair” — and her own essential realizations: “No one has ever told me that I am good with children.” This book’s characters seem always to be responding to such things, and the reader is grateful to Hempel when the very occasional breather arrives, when we can practically hear a character’s abiding sigh. “What can I say about myself today?” the woman from “Tumble Home” wonders to her letter’s recipient, before arriving at this lovely image: “That I am the last to close a window when it rains.”

Stephen Schenkenberg Amazon

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Lenny Bruce Is Dead
by Jonathan Goldstein
Counterpoint Press (Reprint Edition), March 2006, 208 pages, $13.00

It’s one of those novels that comes in choppy fragments. You think that might have some significance. Maybe tying the formal structure to the content, to meaning. It probably doesn’t.

Jonathan Goldstein’s Lenny Bruce Is Dead follows Josh (whom I thought for many pages might be retarded before deciding he wasn’t and I’m still not sure) through a series of connected events involving familial death and sexual exploration. But not connected like it sounds. From the little things (dental floss’s shadow in a toilet bowl) to the big things (religion), there might be significance here. It might be transcendental love or lustful perversion. It’s hard to say. Josh pins down his epiphanies into memorable aphorisms, but the type that you forget unless you scribble it down in your reader’s notebook, which quickly becomes the same size as the novel.

Thing is, Goldstein’s consistently funny, even hilarious, and the steady stream of laughter not only balances out the big-m Meaningful thoughts, it also undercuts the silly ones that only signify significance (while revealing more about Josh than about life). It’s a small, tight work, and Goldstein wields his pen precisely. That control can put you in stitches as easily as it can cut you open, and it can also leave you scratching your head at the immature-poetic ideas Josh’s sometimes stumbles on (“Kay’s red panties are a scythe”). You can see this performance with more earnestness and, perhaps therefore, less effectiveness in the work of nearly every 20-year-old would-be writer. It could come from Keats’s slightly addled twin. But Goldstein nails it.

Still, Lenny Bruce Is Dead remains a slight work. Affecting and aphoristic, humorous and human, but still a slip of a thing. More than a diversion, but less meaningful from the outside than from within.

Justin Cober-Lake Amazon

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by Gary Shteyngart
Random House, May 2006, 352 pages, $24.95

In this ridiculous and ribald romp, 30-year-old Misha Borisovich Vainberg — self-described “incorrigible fatso”; son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia — sweats through family and romantic crises, visa snafus, and urban warfare in the post-Soviet country of Absurdistan. Like he did in his enjoyable debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Shteyngart goes all colorful all the time. There are Misha’s faux-gangster raps, as vivid and blunt as Too $hort’s; there are bizarre, visually precise descriptions of everything in sight (Misha’s khakis “billowing like two zeppelins”; Vladimir Putin looking like “a mildly unhappy horse dipping his mouth into a bowl of oats”); and there are gallons of fun had at the expense of, well, everyone.

Since Misha is an heir, this often includes the lower class; after a frightening flight, for example, “the yokels in economy clapped in typical third-world fashion, cheering our safe arrival, while we in first chose to keep our hands in our laps.” The novel’s last third is its least interesting, with a Halliburton oil scheme that feels tied onto this tale’s tail.

Absurdistan is lots of fun, and though its silliness is totally convincing, I’m not certain that this steady procession of graphic details and over-the-top humor ever became a real achievement. (When a “hand job” is called for, it’s “given behind a beer truck by a white girl with greasy mitts and a stutter.” These kinds of details come to feel predictable.) That said, taking this novel too seriously means spoiling much of the fun, and ticking off its weaknesses begins to feel as helpful, and necessary, as criticizing a whoopee cushion. If you’d like to, have a seat. It will make a funny sound.

Stephen Schenkenberg Amazon

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