This collection of short fiction features writing as straightforward as the perspective is askew.
Readers might find themselves asking a couple of questions when reading Clarke's (The Happiest People in the World, 2015, etc.) latest story collection. The first is What is this story about? The second, Why would anyone write a story about this? These are mostly first-person narratives featuring hopelessly deluded protagonists who live in a world where the usual principles of human behavior don't seem to apply. The title story, which opens the collection, proceeds from this premise: “On Monday, an unarmed black teenage boy was shot in the back and killed by a white city policeman. On Tuesday, there was a race riot.” A simple statement of cause and effect, until the mayor determines that the explanation is too easy, that the riot had in fact been sparked by a white barber who offered cut-rate haircuts and allegedly made a racist remark while giving one. The explanation satisfies the narrator and his white cohort but leaves them in a quandary. Should they go protest at the barber shop? Or should they get one of those discount haircuts that are such a better value than their expensive ones? They expect black protestors when they arrive at the barber shop, but all they see is a long line of white customers wanting their own bargain haircuts. A parable? Then there’s “Concerning Lizzie Borden, Her Axe, My Wife,” in which a mystified husband finds himself invited without explanation to join his wife—who had recently kicked him out of the house—at a B&B in the former home of the notorious ax murderer, where he joins other equally confused guests. For pure literary pleasure, the concluding “The Pity Palace” shows a masterful command of tone on a number of different levels. Though written in the third person, it focuses on an Italian man, Antonio Vieri, despondent because his “wife had left him for the famous American author who wrote those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York.” In other words, Mario Puzo, whose name Vieri can’t bear to hear spoken and who happens to be dead. And was dead at the time Vieri suggested to his wife that if she liked those novels so much, like the one whose translated title was The Patriarch of the Gangster, she could just leave him for the author. If he ever actually did that. If he ever actually had a wife. If any of this signifies anything more than words on a page in a book. Vieri's dialogue seems to have been inspired by idiomatic English translated into the Italian vernacular and then back into English, a virtuosic feat.
Where Clarke's novels veer toward social satire, often hilariously so, this uneven collection ranges from the inscrutable to the astounding.