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ALTMANN'S TONGUE by Brian Evenson


Stories and a Novella

by Brian Evenson

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-42912-3
Publisher: Knopf

Generally speaking, the shorter stories are clever and the longer ones less so—with the exception of a polished novella—in this grisly debut collection by a Gordon Lish acolyte. When Evenson writes brief stories, they have the crisp, tight feeling of Jonis Agee's best work, with a sadistic edge. Because these are so quick, their titles make them self-explanatory. ``Killing Cats'' is narrated by a man who has been asked to drive two friends so that they can do just that. A character in the title piece urges the narrator to eat the tongue of a man he has killed. ``The Abbreviated and Tragical History of The Auschwitz Barber'' does not even occupy an entire page, yet tells just the story promised by its title. The longer stories are equally gruesome, but without that punchy delivery they feel more like drawn-out jokes, and Evenson's habit of coy concealment, while successful in the shorter pieces, grates. Several tales apparently deal with the same characters, although they are so uniformly brutal that it is hard to tell. In ``The Blank'' a man named Thorne has closed himself in his room and passes notes to men on the outside, including Bosephus. Bosephus is still watching and waiting in ``A Slow Death'' and also appears in ``Extermination.'' Just showing up is not enough, however, and attention wanes as Bosephus waits while occasionally killing some animals. The novella ``The Sanza Affair'' is in many senses the most structured work here, and it is also the best. A police detective named Sanza has been killed while investigating a case, which has been passed on to an inspector named Lund. Lund finds the case as impenetrable as Sanza did, and is soon making connections between Sanza's death and his work. This subverts traditional mystery-writing techniques while still maintaining suspense. Good and bad bits from someone who has trouble recognizing when enough is enough.