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Danger zone

After shaky debut, Ross shines in his second book, a collection of stories, both literary and thrilling, about ordinary people who drift into tumult

(Jacob Thomas for The Boston Globe)
By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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As defined by the marketing folk, “literary thrillers’’ tend to be long on thrills and short on literary merit. Their central purpose is to distract readers from the monotony of modern air travel, not to probe the hidden provinces of the heart.

Adam Ross may yet rehabilitate the term. Last year saw the release of his debut novel, “Mr. Peanut,’’ an ingenious, if somewhat convoluted, investigation of marital discord and murder. His new story collection, “Ladies and Gentlemen,’’ is an even better book.

These are traditional stories, written in precise and plainspoken prose, and devoid of the trickery that marred “Mr. Peanut.’’ What makes them electrifying is the author’s knack for luring his characters into emotional danger. His tales build suspense by immersing us in the lives of average people, then demonstrating how easily such lives can tip into tumult.

In “The Rest of It,’’ an English professor named Roddy Thane befriends a maintenance worker at his college, a man named Mike Donato, who regales him with nefarious yarns. In an impulsive moment, Thane proposes they collaborate on a book. Donato takes him up on the offer and eventually tells Thane a story of criminal brutality that sends the professor spiraling into panic.

What makes the piece affecting is the careful work Ross does to render this potentially far-fetched scenario not just plausible, but inevitable. Thane, we learn, has slipped into a life of profound isolation since losing his wife to another man. In some sense, he clings to a figure like Donato to keep himself afloat.

“You want me to tell you stories, so I’m telling you my [expletive] stories. Did you think this was going to be ‘Alice in Wonderland’ ?’’ Donato demands, a rebuke that reverberates for anyone who has turned to the violent fables of our age as an escape from personal doldrums.

Ross is able to induce not just morbid curiosity, in other words, but an identification with the frailties that lead us down the wrong paths.

“When in Rome’’ tracks the doomed relationship between an ambitious attorney and his troubled younger brother. The lawyer, who narrates the story, senses that his brother eventually will betray him. But his loyalty won’t allow him to turn away. When the betrayal finally comes, it blindsides the reader as thoroughly as it does our hero. “[T]hese distances between siblings, I suspect, might be a birthright that’s as strong and arbitrary and ineluctable as love,’’ he observes, “yet because we feel we must honor this accident of our relatedness, we try to swim against it again and again.’’

As I read “When in Rome’’ I couldn’t help but think of “Sonny’s Blues,’’ James Baldwin’s masterful account of a shattered brotherhood. Likewise, “Middleman,’’ a wistful story of infatuation fraught with class undertones, made me think of the Philip Roth novella, “Goodbye, Columbus.’’

It’s not that Ross is a derivative writer, but that his narrative assurance, and his eagerness to grapple with the most complex and troubling human dynamics, naturally puts him in such company. Whether surveying the seething resentments that live beneath our romantic compromises (“In the Basement’’) or revisiting the perilous folly of youth (“Suicide Room’’), Ross manages to cast a spell without calling attention to himself.

His concerns are primarily masculine. But he proves adept at writing about women as well. The title story captures the anguished musings of a celebrity journalist who meets an old flame on assignment and quickly finds herself on the brink of consummating an affair. In the space of a single, astonishingly efficient paragraph, our heroine, having retreated to a restaurant ladies room, takes stock of the exhausting daily routine that has brought her to this point: “get the boys ready for school; clean up the study enough to concentrate; conduct multiple phone interviews . . . eat her meals standing up; have no exercise whatsoever . . . put the boys to bed; wash her face and brush her teeth; burn with rage that she hasn’t had a single moment to herself in eons. Understand, as she now did in this bathroom, that she had a year, perhaps two, in which she might consider herself young.’’

These are the sort of devastating insights that most “literary thrillers’’ avoid at all costs. The point of such books is to keep the plot ticking along, of course, not to bog the reader down in excessive feeling. Which is what makes Ross’s work here feel quietly revolutionary. He has managed to wed the masterful plotting of Raymond Chandler with the exquisite characterization of Raymond Carver, to prove once and for all that exhibiting a deep empathy for your characters deepens the thrill as they, and we, barrel toward their fates.

Lookout Books will publish Steve Almond’s new story collection, “God Bless America,’’ in October. He can be reached at sbalmond@earthlink.net.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
By Adam Ross
Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95