Humorist Rich’s (The Last Girlfriend on Earth, 2013, etc.) latest collection is predictably funny, though sometimes digs deeper.
Imagine a petty, oft-rejected writer complaining to his girlfriend about the “literary establishment”: “They hate that I’m trying to do something new—it terrifies them!” It’s a familiar rant to the girlfriend, who leaves, feigning frustration, only to place a call as soon as she hits the sidewalk, whispering, “He’s onto us,” and then…well, never mind. This review shouldn’t ruin the punch line of Rich’s “Distractions,” for the pleasure of this and other pieces comes from watching each joke unfold. Unfortunately, this also suggests the book’s larger hindrance: There’s not much here besides the jokes. The result is amusing, sure, but slight, like watching an uneven episode of Saturday Night Live (where Rich once worked as a writer) in which some skits stick the landing, some provoke mild chuckles, and some offer the opportunity to use the bathroom or play with your phone. The nearly 80-page novella Sell Out suggests something much different, however. In it, a hardworking immigrant in early-20th-century Brooklyn is accidentally preserved in pickle brine, only to awaken 100 years later. He tracks down his great-great-grandson, the author himself, a self-absorbed, neurotic disappointment. This story is funny, but it gestures toward something deeper about the dreams we foist upon our family members and icons and also the ensuing disappointments. Elsewhere, Rich puts his jokes first, but in Sell Out, the characters are paramount, and readers ought to return to this story. Otherwise, once is the right amount of times to read most of these pieces—and given Rich’s breezy style, once won’t be a chore at all.
Humor comes easily to Rich, but he’s at his best when he pushes against the boundaries of his jokes.