Neil LaBute is noted for his sardonic, sometimes shockingly frank films ("In the Company of Men," in which two guys torment a deaf woman; "Your Friends and Neighbors," which exposes the sex lives of three intermingled couples) and stage plays ("The Mercy Seat," in which a man who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 uses the attack as an excuse to linger with his mistress, and "Bash," three one-acts about ordinary people who happen to be killers).
Not surprisingly, LaBute's first collection of fiction, "Seconds of Pleasure," leans heavily on the theme of misogyny. Ranging from brutal to vicious, wicked to wistful, LaBute's narcissistic men fight the restraints of civility, marriage, decency and, in some cases, any attempt to check their impulses. LaBute plumbs the mind of the endangered male who feels hostility, guilt, lust, shame and fury toward the women in his life.
Structured mostly as spare monologues or dialogues, these 20 stories have such clarity that they might be admired for their harmonious design and meticulous prose. Two of them -- "Time Share" and "Spring Break" -- are rendered in language so authentic yet oblique that they hinge on a last-minute revelation and give a new twist to adultery in the first story and a student/professor affair in the second. A single misplaced word would have given away the trick in these linguistic high-wire acts. LaBute's flaws are the flip side of his gift. He is so glib at capturing voice, so attuned to the dance of text and subtext, that he tends to leave unexplored the deeper levels of why his characters are the way they are. These are not traditional short fictions as much as urgent dispatches from Beer & Babesland that remind us how displaced, dislocated, free-floating and morally anesthetized we have become.