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Book Review

Fierce, flawed portraits of love’s tenuous links

By Kevin O’Kelly
June 23, 2010

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New Yorker editor Ben Greenman’s latest short story collection is a series of snapshots of love and loneliness. One man’s life is consumed by obsession with a woman he hasn’t met. Another despises his lover and wants her mother. A third remembers his college relationship with a woman whose sexual allure was surpassed only by her skill at manipulation.

“What He’s Poised to Do’’ evokes delusion, cruelty, ardor, lust. Yet for all the power of these stories many of them have evident flaws, and Greenman’s eloquence and craft makes his missteps all the more glaring.

“Down a Pound,’’ is the story of an emotionally detached young woman named Sophie and her fraught relationships with her oafish boyfriend and her bitter, wry mother. The tale constitutes a masterful portrait of domestic disaffection and of the myriad, petty, punishing ways that only lovers can irritate each other.

Sophie is a perfectly delineated character: Her intelligence, her dry detachment, her brute endurance of her boyfriend are all of a piece. She’s as believable, as real, as anyone you’ve ever met. Her boyfriend, Joe, is finely drawn as well. And the few brief lines allowed Sophie’s mother suggest a fully realized personality we’ll never get to know. But the ending is unforgivable: Sophie dies just after a car crash, and her final thoughts are a gimmicky reference to Joe’s obsession with his weight.

“Seventeen Ways to Get a Load of That,’’ a finely crafted story of a dysfunctional family, carries emotional punches that are delivered perfectly. But the story is set in a human settlement on the moon in 1989 — a bizarre combination of the anachronistic and the fantastic that serves no narrative or atmospheric purpose.

One odd aspect of this collection is that each story is prefaced with a postmark. The one for “Seventeen’’ reads “Lunar City.’’ Written communication is important to some of the characters. Letters and postcards put a protective distance between them and the emotional realities they’re trying to address.

In the title story, communication by postcard represents the tenuous but still existing connection between the main character and his wife. In the “Hunter and the Hunted,’’ postmarked “Chicago, 1988,’’ the narrator uses letters to work through his feelings for his estranged mistress. However, a good half of these stories have no epistolary motif. The postmarks seem an effort to suggest a connectedness that the stories in this collection don’t really have.

But that’s not to say “What He’s Poised to Do’’ doesn’t have any unifying theme. These stories are all about love: about having it, refusing it, losing it, wanting it, deciding what you need to do, or who you need to be to keep it.

Greenman is adept at portraying the messy, complicated, nigh inexplicable situations people so often find themselves in, an artistry that makes his clumsy mistakes all the more irritating. It’s unfortunate that a very good writer’s works contain gimmicks and gaffes.

It’s possible that once a writer has reached a certain level of critical success, editors are reluctant to suggest revisions. Or perhaps the staff of most publishing houses are overworked and lack the time.

In either case, it’s a pity. Because even the most successful of writers still needs a critical editor. This book could have been so much better than it was.

Kevin O’Kelly can be reached at rkokelly@gmail.com.

WHAT HE’S POISED TO DO

By Ben Greenman

Harper Perennial, 208 pp., paperback, $13.99