These nine stories by a leading American writer almost all bend away from realism, and one goes well into fantasy, while offering choice prose and insights.
Lethem (Dissident Gardens, 2013, etc.) has a rubbery Gumby brain that bounces among genres, elements of pop culture and everyday abnormalities. “Their Back Pages” tells of a comic-book plane crash that maroons on an island 13 characters (such as the armless King Phnudge and the clown Large Silly). Their adventure fluidly, delightfully mixes human and cartoon elements, along with a hint of something malign. In “Procedure in Plain Air,” which more than nods to Donald Barthelme, a bound man is casually and without explanation placed alive in a hole in a Manhattan street, and a passerby is enlisted to watch over him. The title character of “The Porn Critic” has a certain cachet among his peers, in part by managing a sex-toy shop and reviewing its adult films, but his simple romantic ambitions are foiled when the lady in question sees the piles of XXX DVDs in his flat. “Traveler Home” starts as fragments, like aides-mémoire for a larger work, then blossoms into a modern Grimm tale. “The King of Sentences” tells of two sentence-loving, unpublished writers hunting the reclusive man of the title when they aren’t concocting lines like, “I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring.” One story concerns the estrangement between the narrator and his blog, where “gulls have skeletonized the corpse in the entranceway,” among other things. It’s as far out there as jazz might be to a Beatles fan. At the other end of the scale is an almost conventional piece about a family outing to SeaWorld that is colored by the father’s being weaned from the antidepressant Celexa.
Lethem’s humor ranges from rueful to sly to “big silly,” and his careful, mostly unshowy writing has a gift for charming a reader into almost anything.