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Smart short stories that set out to satirize (it seems) the mass, valueless culture of a drugs-and-TV world, but that end up replicating the very symptoms they hope to expose. Giving a year-end barbecue party for his students (""Flag Day""), a fifth-grade teacher is also in the process of breaking up with the pregnant mother of one of his students: a mood of wan, madcap hopelessness dissipates rather than builds (""and I'm much too drunk to deal with any of it,"" says the teacher). People in these pieces, again and again, possess neither the charm nor strengths that might engage a reader in their woes. The loss of an arm keeps a man from his dream of becoming a ballplayer (""The Artichoke League""), but his mean-spirited bitterness (and aggressive dope-smoking) make him merely sullen, not dramatic; the pot-smoking high-school kids in ""Fred's Lid"" are awash in a quasi-hip meaninglessness but can't rise above platitude when it matters (""Reality sucks is what I'm thinking""); and the doomed, shallow love affairs in ""Pinocchio's"" and ""The Lighthouse"" remain merely doomed and shallow: the youthful lovers being full of gestures but not of substance enough to make one care. This--that there is only surface, no substance--may in fact be Gummerman's point. One character looks into a mirror when he wants ""to know what he was feeling,"" and of another, in the drugs-and-thugs story ""A Minor Forest,"" the author writes: ""as far as Langer was concerned, life was all middle, with no idea how you got there and no idea how you got out."" The characters here, indeed, can't find their history or themselves; theirs is a world like TV, of the non sequitur, the random, and the surreal. A convict returns to his sister's house; the sister arranges to shoot him, then decides not to (""Russell's Hour""). In the title story, two men end up in the desert, in a car, at night, not knowing what either wants from the other. A young man who thinks his girlfriend's breasts may be artificial sets out with a movie camera to find the truth and ""objectify his life."" Stories, in all, that are ambitious in theme, but bloodless, without a single moment to move you, or a character to like.

Pub Date: April 12th, 1989
Publisher: Knopf