Shorter and longer takes in a collection that makes only a brief stab at cohesion.
Gifford’s collection of semi-linked stories comes complete with an annoying emcee called the Ropedancer, who lives in a rundown Veracruz hotel. The pieces are set in places like Honduras, Berlin, Romania and Chicago, usually in the ’50s or ’60s. Some of the shorter items are standard-issue Gifford, often juiced by a handgun, like the L.A.-set “After Hours at La Chinita,” in which a popular nightclub singer is shot by a hooker, or “Dancing with Fidel,” where an unhappy new bride on her honeymoon in Miami runs off on a lark to Havana just after the revolution. The two longer items lack resolutions but are excellent nonetheless. In “Almost Oriental” (dedicated to Andrei Codrescu, whose work it imitates), a Stanford literature professor goes to Romania in search of information on a little-known writer. The action is minimal—he wanders around the delicately described countryside, meets up with a woman, doesn’t find out much—but it’s a joy following him along. Still better is “Murder at the Swordfish Club,” in which a small New Zealand town is upended by the shooting death (suicide or murder?) of a local fisherman.
An artful ride down dangerous roads.