[REVIEW] Lucky Alan and Other Stories, by Jonathan Lethem





$24.95, 157 pgs


Reviewed by Jonathan Russell Clark



The short story form serves Jonathan Lethem well. An imagination and intellect as keen as fertile as Lethem’s can take any idea and run with it for as long as he likes, which can result in, for instance, his disastrous 2009 novel Chronic City. Or it can produce something wondrous like The Fortress of Solitude. But Lethem’s stories, like his essays, allow him to explore a conceit with the same brilliant mind while simultaneously preventing him from wearing out his literary welcome.

His third story collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories shows Lethem in total control of his prodigious skills and cultural insight. These nine stories cover many of the themes Lethem finds himself returning to again and again, but their economy ups the punch considerably. But perhaps most important to the success of these tales is Lethem’s acute understanding of the worlds over which he hovers.

Take, for instance, the story “Their Back Pages,” which features a group of long-forgotten comic book characters crash-landing on a tropical island. I couldn’t help but be reminded of George Saunders’s “In Persuasion Nation,” a similarly satirical romp featuring characters not from comics but from commercials. Saunders’s aim is very different, yes, but there’s also something else: Saunders necessarily remains at a distance in “In Persuasion Nation,” because the object of his story (commercials) is not a world of which he’s a part. Lethem, who has himself written comic books, clearly knows the realm of paneled storytelling intimately, so “Their Back Pages” wins as both a funny satire and a knowledgeable artifact of Lethem’s vast cultural reach. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Late Lights, by Kara Weiss


Colony Collapse Press

123 pages, $14


Reviewed by Jonathan Russell Clark


Kara Weiss’s Late Lights is an unusual specimen. A book of stories so connected, they basically make up a novel. But at 123 pages, Late Lights is more like a novella in stories, a combination of two types of fiction that don’t ordinarily sell well. Or even get published, for that matter. Story collections, the popular publishing wisdom goes, only interest MFA students, while novellas, apparently, interest no one. That Weiss not only published the book but also won two Next Generation Indie Book Awards makes the rarity of her achievement all the more atypical.

Weiss’s work follows three childhood friends through five stories: Monty, a troubled delinquent trying to turn his life around after yet another spell in juvie; B.J., a girl who identifies as a boy; and Erin, the straight-laced one, who, inevitably, makes some bad choices of her own. They all grew up in Brookline, a mostly affluent neighborhood of Boston (street-parking, for instance, is forbidden on many streets, so as to keep the area beautiful and unclogged by cars). Weiss’s characters, though, are not rich. In “Kinds of Violence,” we learn of B.J.’s brothers – violent, angry boys who have all spent time in court or juvenile detention or jail. In the title story, while visiting him in juvie, Monty’s father tells him that he’s moved to Roxbury, a poor neighborhood. Only Erin appears to come from a family of means, a fact made even clearer by her choice of college: Dartmouth. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Egg Heaven, by Robin Parks


Shade Mountain Press

150 pgs, $16.95


Reviewed by Jonathan Russell Clark


Diners provide the interconnection for the characters in Robin Parks’s fine debut collection Egg Heaven. All set in Southern California, the servers at these establishments move in and out of each other’s lives like their customers move in and out of the restaurants themselves. In “La Playa,” young Bell, after losing her mother and her home, finds employment in the titular diner. Later, in “Delgado’s Family Mexican Restaurant,” we hear of “Jacinto’s Aunt Bell’s restaurant, La Playa,” giving us a sense of what happened after Bell’s story ended. Young Bell, again in “La Playa,” tries to eat at a place called, simply, Breakfast, but “the waitress sat in the back, smoking in the dark, ignoring Bell, so she finally left.” In another story, “Breakfast,” we seem to meet that neglectful waitress.

But these connections are not meant to further the plot. This isn’t a novel-in-stories; it is a collection of interconnected stories. The distinction is important here because Parks isn’t interested in telling one big story but a number of small ones. The autonomy of each piece is necessary for the larger, more important connections to take hold. These characters––these servers and owners, customers and regulars––are linked less by the coincidence of geography and more by the state of their lives––full of loss, fragile hope and fleeting tenderness. Continue reading

[REVIEW] If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, by Ryan Werner

Any Truth

Passenger Side Books

28 pages, $4


Review by Jonathan Russell Clark



In his essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace describes what he calls “Image-Fiction” as writing that “uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about “real,” albeit pop-mediated, characters.” He cites as a practitioner of the art Mark Leyner, whose 1990 book My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist contains lines like, “I had just been fired from McDonald’s for refusing to wear a kilt during production launch week for their new McHaggis sandwich.”

Leyner’s novel and Wallace’s essay popped into my mind as I read Ryan Werner’s If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, which seems to me both a throwback to that style and a cautious update of it. Like Leyner, Werner’s stories are filled with oddballs, off-kilter occurrences and pop references. And Werner also shares with Leyner an ability to distill a situation in very few words. One of Werner’s stories opens like this: “I didn’t marry a girl named Florence and then she won the lottery. That’s not the way I tell it but it sure is the way she tells it, like they’re related, like there couldn’t be one without the other.”  Not only is this a very funny line, it’s also remarkably economical––an entire relationship dynamic is established in a handful of words. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Last Word by Jonathan Blum

last word

Rescue Press

86 pages, $14


Review by Jonathan Russell Clark


There are so many wonderful things about Jonathan Blum’s Last Word. Blum’s narrative takes us into an upper-class Jewish private school called Traubman V. Goldfarb. The narrator is Dr. Kip Langer, a facial reconstruction surgeon, whose son (from a previous marriage) and daughters attend the school. When someone hacks into the school’s network and adds strange and offensive comments to all the report cards, Dr. Langer, his family, and the entire school are thrown into upheaval.

This is a world Blum knows intimately, as evidenced by details sprinkled throughout, like the “zither-shaped concrete bench whose seat spells Shalom Yeladim in a mosaic of brilliant-colored stone flecks,” or the “three-part blue-framed proverb” on the wall of a conference room, “If I Am Not For Myself, Who Am I For? If I Am Only For Myself, Who Will Be For Me? If Not Now, When?” I know Blum has seen these things. Continue reading

[REVIEW] MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach



n+1 / Faber and Faber

312 pages, $16


Review by Jonathan Russell Clark


Junot Diaz’s recent New Yorker essay “MFA vs POC” may have changed the conversation started by MFA vs NYC, an anthology of essays tackling, the subtitle suggests, “The Two Cultures of American Fiction.” Diaz’s response focused the attention on the race problem of MFA programs. As Diaz puts it, “That shit was too white.” His point is undoubtedly salient, but I hope MFA vs NYC survives the fallout, for it offers many fascinating insights into the current writing climate (though a hard look at race is conspicuously absent).

Despite its pugilistic title, MFA vs NYC isn’t actually a contest, inasmuch as no winner is declared. In fact, both “cultures” emerge equally disparaged. Sure, there are defenders in the mix, too. The wondrous (and current critical darling) George Saunders, for example, presents a simple and idealistic version of an MFA program:

“…a bunch of artists, living simply and honestly, cutting out the crap, trying to reconstruct a happy little petri dish, forming intense friendships that center around, but are not limited to, art, and that continue on through the rest of their lives.” Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Zuckerman Bound, by Philip Roth



The Library of America

645 pgs, $35.00


Review by Jonathan Russell Clark


The opening sentence establishes everything:

“It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago––I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman––when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.”

With this remarkable and deceptively simply sentence, Philip Roth introduced the world to his doppelganger, the writer Nathan Zuckerman. The year was 1979; the book, The Ghost Writer. But, as that sentence suggests, Zuckerman’s Bildungsroman would be massive, too big for one book. Since the publication of The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman has appeared in eight additional books. But the ones I want to focus on here are the first four: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1984), and The Prague Orgy (1985), which are collectively known as Zuckerman Bound. Continue reading