Life undermines the pursuit of success and status in these rich, bewildering stories.
True to the title, the heroes of Morris’ first volume of fiction try to figure out the conundrums of love, career and family at every stage of the white male life cycle: A wiseass teenager stages a gross prank to catch the eye of a pretty cheerleader; a newly minted lawyer discovers that laziness and disaffection are no bar to advancement at his firm; an old man tries to forge a new connection to his dementia-stricken wife with the help of a pint-sized pianist. Most of the protagonists are professionals living in New York or LA who have their comfortable-to-affluent middle-aged lives shaken up by subtle instabilities. A rich producer shares a secret tragedy with a Mexican repairman; an investment banker is baffled by the technological universe he is supposed to have mastered; a funeral takes an Ivy League grad back to his working-class Irish Catholic roots; a hack attorney relaxes by posing as a crazy homeless man; and in the bleakly comic title story, a man reluctantly chaperoning his son’s fifth-grade class on a Virginia field trip has his own callowness contrasted with the august figures of American history. Morris, an entertainment lawyer, producer and journalist, knows his characters and their worlds like the back of his hand. He endows them with both a sharply etched particularity and an iconic heft: “Jim Mulligan stood in boxers and a T-shirt in the refrigerator light, beer bottle in hand, in the same spot as countless American men before and since, at once living the whiteness and watching it, a picture within a picture, hoping for a miracle snack.” His wonderfully evocative prose finds a world in tiny details of gesture and setting, in the casually arrogant stirring of coffee or the drab décor of a hotel room “conceived in mediocrity.” The result is a cleareyed, finely wrought and mordantly funny take on a modern predicament by a new writer with loads of talent.
A superb literary gallery of men who can’t understand why life has given them what they want.