Our War and How We Won It by E. J. Cullen (Viking: $17.95)
Malaise in the contemporary short story? Disquiet? Fine-tuning? Forget it. Here comes E. J. Cullen in a comical and utterly surreal fury, lurching out of the saloon of his imagination and picking fights with everyone and everything in sight.
Reading "Our War" is approximately like falling downstairs while carrying an armful of rubber balls. There is a good deal of amusement on the way, some nasty knocks, the disclosure of parabolas and lines of flight quite unknown to modern physics, and something other than a truly comfortable landing.
Cullen's collection--his first in book form--consists of 28 stories. That is how his publisher describes them; many seem closer to sketches, or vignettes, or diatribes, or the kind of speech you dream you are making and are unable to understand once you wake up.
There is usually a narrator. It can be a Latino whose English is all but indecipherable; it can be a black woman engaged in beating up her sister over a dead relative's knickknacks. Cullen's dialect pieces are often enormously irritating; and I find them unsuccessful, at the very least.
They have a point, though. They are an extreme variation on his theme, which is misapprehension. Cullen's characters walk entirely straight paths through a universe that has been scrunched up by an unseen hand so that every normal and reasonable route that a person might want to follow is grotesquely out of place.
The unseen hand, quite often, is a relative of economists' invisible hand. All the bottom lines of our society--economic, political, social, emotional, cultural--converge on Cullen's half-acre to make it an ultimate bottom land, where people struggle absurdly in a kind of conceptual mud up to their armpits.
Cullen's normal, ordinary misapprehender is white and male and belongs to a class whose collars range from light blue to discolored white. I'm not sure quite why--could it be Cullen's own photograph on the book jacket?--but they all seem to be oversize and physically awkward. They are quick to take offense, more than a little paranoid, and their peculiar successes turn out even more disastrously than their peculiar failures.
Take the narrator of "How Some People Feel About Jesus." Somehow, he has volunteered for a church bazaar, no doubt hoping to feel virtuous. Instead, he is in a perpetual rage. He dresses up, expecting to be assigned to jewelry or arts and crafts. Instead he gets a table with broken toys and incomplete games. The "sad-sack table," he calls it. "I am wearing a blazer with golden buttons and they put me in charge of the junk," he complains. "Am I missing something?"
In short order, he is scolded for yelling at children who mess up his display, he sarcastically addresses the pastor as "your holiness," and he gets into a shouting match with a man who gives him 50 cents for two board games and objects when he demands to check the prices.
The narrator's simmering anger is entirely believable; its contrast with the peaceable church setting makes it hilariously absurd and something more. All apples in Cullen's Eden have razor blades in them.
"Bridgework" takes a discouraged 40-year-old who has a tooth pulled and resists the dentist's suggestion that he have a bridge put in. "I'm three-quarters dead anyway," he reflects, and besides--in Cullen's disintegrating world, this is not a non sequitur--the priest he used to confess to has run off with a woman.
The patient's recalcitrance opens out into a loony four-way panel discussion. The dentist argues quality of life--thinking, above all, of his own plans to buy a sports car. The dentist's wife is also pro-bridge, even as she compares her husband's earning capacity unfavorably with that of a friend who is a surgeon and "only 10 or 12 major operations away from a Rolls-Royce." The hygienist broods that she earns $140 a week for "cleaning all this garbage in people's mouths." And the patient, who has the last word, complains that society has betrayed him. All his life he had faithfully used a stiff bristle toothbrush as he was taught; now, it seems, the rage is for soft bristles.
Seeming disconnections abound. In one story, a weird American graduate student sent to Leningrad goes around offering after-shave lotion and jars of pickles for information on nerve gas and gold production; eventually, he is beaten up by a dwarf claiming to be Tolstoy's son. One more instance of the fiction of the absurd suddenly becoming--what with the Moscow embassy stories--prophetically lifelike.
Cullen can be lumpy and graceless. His irony can misfire. When it does, his angry energy tears out gaping holes in the wrong places. But at his best, his wild and parodic vision makes his impassioned bumblers the fools of all our fortunes.