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BEFORE & AFTER by Thomas Beller

BEFORE & AFTER

Stories from New York

By Thomas Beller

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-32353-6
Publisher: Norton

Sixty vignettes of life in New York City both before and after the Twin Towers went south with its heart-breaking charge

Most of this material first saw the light of day on mrbellersneighborhood.com, fiction-writer Beller’s Web site whose stated aim is “to provide a venue for pieces with no pitch, no angle. This site makes the neighborhood, and the individual, the angle.” The pieces that fit with this premise are well considered and fresh—but fresh like the fruit at a high-end market. The experiences they chronicle are well lived, though young. It’s evident in the pre-9/11 work that the writers knew they were onto something good, fleeting, and worth the telling. The mood here is, of course, more whimsical and no less genuine for it: there are stories of a choice barber and the sensual semiotics of socks, of a park riot, a New Year’s Eve kiss with a cab driver, and of a guy who doesn’t really know how to fix a building’s furnace. A few are precious (“There was a time, not long ago, when turtles enjoyed a brief vogue in New York City”), but by and large each story behaves like a crab apple: Bite into it and it bites you back. These experiences and their tellers seem old beyond their years, and many pack a hurtful punch. All of the post-9/11 works hurt, yet in their newness, and despite their subject, they don’t quite leave the lasting imagery that the earlier material does. (Maybe it’s just more sustaining to reflect upon memories of Tom’s Restaurant than to dwell on Don DeLillo as a guide to the near future.) The writing is raw, and the best comes from longtime residents like Philip Lopate, who remembers of the WTC, “the more you looked at it, the less it gave you back.”

Brief and memorable epitomes of the urban encounter: a transporting collection.