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Book Review

Where Alienation Is So Much a Way of Life

REMOTE FEED, Stories by David Gilbert, Scribner, $21, 220 pages

April 22, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

On Guy Fawkes Day, the English set up a straw figure stuffed with fireworks for the spectacle and satisfaction of setting it alight. A number of the stories in "Remote Feed" tend to be like that: The figures are created for the sake of the detonations. David Gilbert, the author, is a wily and imaginative pyrotechnician, but after the flash what remains is a smudge of burnt straw.

Sometimes, though, there is more than flash. As with the original Guy Fawkes, who assembled his gunpowder barrels in an attempt to blow up Parliament, the powder train is laid against something more formidable than straw men. A real demolition is at work against a real target.

In the weaker stories, the target is one or another young middle-class American whose haplessness is exposed by a variety of semi-allegorical extremities. A father staying home with a fragile son reproduces the breakdown that lost him his job by going into manic overdrive while trying to unclog a toilet. "I must look crazy the way I'm trying to churn this water into something, anything, but I won't stop until an inkling of hope has surfaced," he says.

It's an unsatisfying metaphor of twentysomething alienation; so is another story in which a college woman acts out a variety of transgressive sex fantasies with her obliging though puzzled lover. The fantasies are entertainingly wacky; the moral is leaden. "Nowadays," she explains, "we have nothing but fear, just the fear itself, to sustain a sense of fleeting reality."

These pieces and several others are not stories so much as story opportunities for an elegant "Gotcha" aimed unspecifically at what we are to think of as "Our Times." It is low-energy alienation.

Gilbert's talent for satiric anger is keenest and most fully employed in the collection's title story. Its vitriolic energy and desperate absurdity find a suitably large target in the disproportion between historic tragedy and the way we receive it through the media.

A television crew is waiting at the Galapagos airport to cover a brief visit by the first lady. It was intended as a vacation reprieve; the team had spent grueling months in Sarajevo and its reporter had died suddenly there of a stroke.

Drinking heavily in the airport bar, the three men recall Bosnia: day after day seeking out the shootings, the deaths, the atrocities, and trying to give them fresh spins. Here on the island that was Darwin's treasure-house of marvelously surviving species, they talk of filming the Sarajevo zoo animals being killed for food. The seals were the hardest to corner and shoot; the giraffe was a professional test for the butcher.

They recall Laraby, whose good looks and gift for words made him a rising star on the evening news, growing thin and haggard under the strain (viewers had noticed). Nearing breakdown, he had begun to think of himself as Sarajevo itself when he collapsed and died, while interviewing a woman about her miraculously unbroken porcelain. The crew filmed his death, but it was not broadcast. Lewis, the producer, feels swindled; had it been a sniper, it would have made a terrific show.

Then the first lady's plane arrives. She descends wearing shorts, and suddenly Lewis screams at the cameraman to zoom in. "I want to see the pulse in the varicose veins. . . . The horror of cellulite. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter."

Until then, nobody had filmed the atrocities that time has inflicted on the first lady's thighs and ankles. It will be the crew's new Sarajevo, and this time they will have it exclusive.

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