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Dying to belong

The Joy of Funerals: A Novel in Stories, Alix Strauss, St. Martin's: 260 pp., $23.95

June 29, 2003|Tripp Whetsell | Tripp Whetsell is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the Hollywood Reporter.

GRIEF makes some people so desperate that they do things they wouldn't ordinarily do to get past their pain. Witness the characters in Alix Strauss' first book of darkly humorous short stories, "The Joy of Funerals." Part "Six Feet Under," part "Sex and the City," its protagonists, all troubled New York women in their 30s, respond to loss by reaching out to strangers, usually sexually.

Strauss' inspiration was a 1998 essay she wrote for the Lives section of the New York Times Magazine in which she discussed her own obsession with funerals. As an only child plagued by an underlying sense of loneliness and an overwhelming need to belong to something larger, she felt the greatest connections to others at family funerals, which were the only occasions when she would see most of her relatives.

But here Strauss' fondness for funerals reinvents itself in the form of nine disturbed characters who take this bizarre fascination to even more outrageous new extremes.

In the opening vignette, "Remembering Larry," Strauss introduces us to Leslie, a lonely widow who grieves for her dead husband by burning old photos of him, sprinkling the ashes on her Rice Krispies and then having random sex with mourners she meets at the cemetery. "It was mid-October," Leslie says. "I was coatless and shivering. Samuel took off his jacket and draped it over my shoulders. As he did, I leaned and kissed him." Her next conquest is Jacob, a junior stockbroker whom she discovers as he is paying respects to a grandfather he claims never to have met. She then spots Roman, a heavyset Yugoslavian immigrant visiting the gravesite of his young daughter. Her last encounter -- with George, a tall, dark man she comes across during a funeral in progress -- is her favorite: She trails behind him to the men's room, waiting for him to come out. Almost every new tryst turns out more disastrously than the last.

"Remembering Larry" sets the morose but sardonic tone for the rest of the book, and each successive story builds momentum -- from Helen, who steals the ashes of her psychiatrist-turned-lover, to the unnamed woman who goes on a date with the perfect man only to have him drop dead a few days later -- leading up to the climactic title novella introducing Nina, who insinuates her way into the lives of the eight previous narrators by scouring the death notices of newspapers and using the funerals of strangers she pretends to have known as an impetus against her own isolation. At the end, we are told, Nina finds a sense of belonging as she signs the guestbook among the mourners and relishes the moment "as though I've unleashed a small piece of myself."

Yet belonging is exactly what these characters cannot find. It is this desperation, and the profound and extreme measures people take to fill the void created by death and despair, that Strauss delivers so well in cleverly interwoven plots in which sex and the sum of its parts become coping mechanisms for escaping the sadness and rekindling lost intimacy. Leslie, for instance, lives in a perpetual state of melancholy -- "I stood looking in the bathroom mirror, counting my bones, resembling the bodies I visited" -- but can also be neurotic as she folds and refolds her late husband's socks, arranges them in order of color and organizes them according to the seasons.

Then there's Gail in "The Way You Left," whose emotions range from contempt to lust. First she expresses her disgust with men, and then she lusts after her mugger. "Chills race up and down my spine as he bends down," she says. "His breath is hot on my hand, his hair smells of almond."

Reading "The Joy of Funerals" is almost like going through the five stages of grief. You start off in denial because you can't believe these characters are actually doing these things. You progress to horror but then begin to understand and empathize with what these people are going through. Finally, like Nina, you come to some kind of catharsis and acceptance and move on.

Not all of the dots connect immediately. The relationships among the characters aren't always apparent, and, even within individual stories, there's often not enough context to figure out what's going on from page to page. Strauss also sometimes has a tendency to leave out certain vital facts about these characters that would be useful to know. She hardly ever reveals their ages, for instance, even though it's clear that their current circumstances have made them older than their chronological years. In addition, she doesn't reveal much about their occupations, educational backgrounds or previous lives.

Although the book presents a number of incongruities among the relationships of its characters, the author nonetheless holds our attention from page to page. Though it's natural for readers to want to turn away from the pain of people who are grieving, Strauss, to her credit, manages to take us beyond this skittishness and into empathy for the characters. In and of itself, this is the biggest accomplishment of "The Joy of Funerals" and one that ultimately proves there is no one correct way to grieve.

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