Five years after his debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (2011), Hale returns with a collection of seven short stories, none earthshaking but all evidence of a steadily growing professional talent.
The fat artist of the title story really is a fat artist, no political correctness about it. He's a little pompous—"This is a modus of being quite distinct from 'fat person,' " he intones—and his story comes packed with enough footnotes to make one suspect that a David Foster Wallace parody is in the offing. Still, for all the self-importance of the fat artist and his impending doom (“at thirty-three I am young yet, although (Nos morituri te salutamus) I am about to die”), there is a true seriousness to the story: Hale means to say something about art and death, just as elsewhere he means to take us into modes of being that are sometimes torqued a little beyond ordinary reality. The opening story is a case in point, a sideways look at a fugitive underground group from the 1960s broken apart by a mishap during a flight over the Atlantic Ocean, set in a world in which people still smoke cigarettes and wear cufflinks. Along the way, Hale stops to look at the pickles we get ourselves into, often commenting on the scene in a world-weary, knowing way: “There is nothing that brings two people closer together faster than doing something wrong together, and that’s the greatest psychological kick you get out of infidelity.” “How was it that she was dressed in fishnet stockings, a garter belt, a leather corset, and a red wig, holding a creepy South African rhino-skin whip and sitting alone in a luxury apartment in Washington, D.C., with the dead body, which was naked except for the rope on his wrists and the nipple clamps still on his nipples, of a US Congressman?” How indeed? Hale will, of course, explain.
Hale's stories are wry rather than funny, often predictable rather than surprising—but the questions he raises are interesting all the same.