An attractive wry humor ripples through this collection of ten stories, which follows Dean’s debut novel (The Madonnas of Leningrad, 2006).
The humor is evident in the opening story, “What the Left Hand Is Saying,” a cute riff on All About Eve. Tim, a seemingly innocent young charmer, makes friends with his neighbors in his New York building, then skewers them mercilessly at a comedy club and lands a slot on a cable channel. That’s show business. Performers also appear in “Romance Manual,” a decidedly unromantic account of a one-night stand on the road in Florida, and in “Dan in the Gray Flannel Rat Suit,” the longest piece by far, a bittersweet valentine to the acting profession (Dean is a former actor). In the story, Dan spends more time tending bar than acting, but he eventually gets a couple of breaks. Ironically, he sails through his audition for a challenging role in a hot off-Broadway play, but he messes up a dumb commercial. There’s high drama, too, in “The Queen Mother,” about a crisis intervention. A large Southern family is trying to steer its alcoholic matriarch into a rehab clinic; again, the humor is dark. There’s nothing humorous, however, about the midlife crisis of a successful Seattle lawyer in “The Afterlife of Lyle Stone”; the story suggests, chillingly, that the cure may be worse than the disease. That satisfying payoff is missing from “The Best Man,” in which a recovering alcoholic yearns fleetingly to stray from his happy marriage, and from “The Bodhisattva,” about a woman’s unrequited love for her former shrink. But everything comes together in the beautifully calibrated “Another Little Piece of My Heart.” For middle-aged Elaine, a chance encounter with her ex yields an unexpected journey into self-knowledge and maybe, just maybe, offers opportunity for a fresh start.
Dean has a fine appreciation for the way chance can save or doom careers and marriages. More, please.