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Book Review

Plots, Characters That Don't Quite Move Off the Printed Page

GATES OF EDEN by Ethan Coen, Rob Weisbach; William Morrow & Co. $24, 261 pages

November 23, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Screenwriter and producer Ethan Coen has tried his hand at prose, and one can only wonder why. "Gates of Eden" is his first book, a volume of 14 short stories by half of the Coen Brothers team that has spawned the award-winning films "Barton Fink" and "Fargo" and the wonderfully idiosyncratic "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona."

Some of the stories are built on compelling premises. Joe Carmody, the hero of "Destiny," is a college graduate suffering from a case of alienation so bad that he chooses a career as a boxer, "which I knew did have risks, and might hurt me, but I thought, bodily harm, well, if it doesn't kill me, well, then it passes, and I'll be a broader person." "Cosa Minapolidan" introduces a red-headed Irish novice into a luckless Italian mob, a boy so new to the job that he has to be prompted while putting the squeeze on the proprietor of a pizza parlor who is tardy with his payments. There's no question that we're in Coenland, the other side of the tracks viewed through the middle-class end of the telescope.

And there's no question that Coen knows its inhabitants. One of the more frightening stories, "The Boys," draws in fine detail a horrifying weekend one father spends with his young sons--Davey, an obsessive suck-up, and Bart, "a mute," who will only eat jelly omelets and refuses to separate from a dogeared Sesame Street catalog. The climax of the weekend threatens to be the Crazy Horse Pageant outside Vermillion, S.D., "a celebration in drama, recitation, and Native American song of the life and times of the great Lakota war chief. . . . The father tasted bile in the back of his throat as soon as Davey started talking about it. Clearly the word 'pageant' had tripped something in Davey's brain and he was mad to go. When told that they couldn't, he kept saying, 'Dad, I would understand if there was a reason.' The father was infuriated both by the insufferable expression and because although there was a reason, it was one of pure punishing inconvenience, and that was a concept no eight-year-old could be brought to understand."

Many of Coen's stories are written as monologues that one can imagine issuing through the magisterial lips of a William H. Macy, say, or an M. Emmett Walsh. The confession of a man who decapitates his wife, the confession of a boy who murders his father. Yet something is missing--perhaps a movie screen. One is tempted to hypothesize that what distinguishes a Coen brothers film from an Ethan Coen short story is the eye of the camera and the art of the actor.

But even in this neighborhood, some of the premises are so uninhabitable that not even the thought of a movie can rescue the tenants. Take "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator." One-part composer, one-part dick--there it is, the whole plot in a one-note joke. Or the title story, a piece of pulp noir featuring a hard-boiled inspector from California Weights and Measures. Get it? Sam Spade weighing a quarter-pounder and finding it half-an-ounce short.

Coen's ersatz radio thrillers read like bottom drawer Firesign Theater imitations, his mob stories like second-rate Woody Allen or third-rate Mad Magazine. They are ideas, legal pad doodlings, concepts high, low and in between. For aficionados of the Coen Brothers oeuvre, "Gates of Eden" has the literary biographical interest of a search through a great artist's trash can.

And Ethan Coen, on the basis of his films, is a first-class artist. And as a first-class artist, he should know enough to let sleeping trash lie.

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