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Monsters among us

American Morons Stories Glen Hirshberg Earthling Publications: 192 pp., $24

October 15, 2006|Tod Goldberg | Tod Goldberg is the author of the short-story collection "Simplify" and the novel "Living Dead Girl."

THE most frightening characters in fiction -- and often the most memorable -- are not those who haunt with ghostly deeds but those who wear a human skin over their bodies. Edgar Allan Poe understood this intersection, his most horrifying stories relying not on the supernatural but on the dissection of revenge and the death knell of obsession. Is there a more alarming image than Montresor guiding the hacking Fortunato to his own entombment in "The Cask of Amontillado"? One thousand flesh-eating zombies would be unlikely to equal the chill of that image or Poe's style, but Glen Hirshberg's latest collection of short stories, "American Morons," comes maddeningly close -- in parts.

When Hirshberg's at his best, his characters hold the long coil of human life in their hands and examine how the commonplace can spiral into a shimmering half-truth. Hirshberg doesn't need the supernatural to cause his readers' skin to skip the crawling phase and move directly into a dead sprint.

The best example of this is the gripping title story. Tourists Kellen and Jamie, slipping down the short side of a long relationship, find themselves stuck on the shoulder of a busy Italian freeway after their rental car breaks down. Only minutes outside of Rome, they are strangers in a tourist land and Kellen has cause to worry. It's the summer after George W. Bush's reelection and corpses of vacationing Americans have been showing up covered in tar and feathers across the country. Further inside Kellen there also exists a restless fear that he is somehow less of a man than he, or his girlfriend, believe he could be. It's a faceless paranoia, but one that causes Kellen to obsess, perhaps correctly, over the charity of two strange young men -- "the reedy boy" and "the troll" -- who come to help the stranded couple: "Whirling, Kellen found the reedy boy directly behind them, staring down. He really was tall. And his eyes were deep-water blue. Nothing frightening about him, Kellen thought, wondering why his heart was juddering like that."

To be dependent is a form of possession unlike any other, given as we are to the will of those who have the power to save or kill us. Act in offense and risk grave embarrassment; refuse to act and risk the grave itself. Kellen, unlike his president, is not a decider, and for this he ultimately pays -- not with his life, and not with the life of Jamie (though, clearly, their relationship has withered to nothing), but with the life of another. It's a stunning conclusion best left for readers to discover, but suffice it to say that Kellen, the author's own Fortunato, is offered escape or redemption and makes the wrong choice.

Unfortunately, several of the seven stories in "American Morons" fall short as Hirshberg strays from the horror of life and opts for a more convenient turn: the twist ending. "Safety Clowns" begins promisingly when twentysomething Max, beset by the death of his mother, applies for a position with the Safety Clown Ice Cream Truck Co., only to find that ice cream isn't the only addictive substance he'll be selling. Max's first day on the job is alternately funny and bizarre as customers young and old visit the Safety Clown truck for either "ice cream or ... ice cream." But when the story takes an incongruent plunge into the paranormal in the final pages -- the truck's ornamental clowns have some morality issues, it seems -- the ending feels both contrived and arbitrary.

Part of the shortfall stems from the very nature of short-story collections: Since these stories were written over several years, Hirshberg presumably didn't write them with the idea of how they would read side by side; the perceptive reader will begin to see the masonry of the author's conceits, so that when Hirshberg's twists do work -- as they do in "Like a Lily in a Flood," his haunting tale-within-a-tale of historical vengeance meted out generation by generation -- the subsequent lantern shine above the author's mistakes is bright.

Both "Flowers on Their Bridles, Hooves in the Air" and "Transitway" suffer this fate, as it becomes clear early on that we are being set up for a swift shift toward the fantastic. This isn't such a bad thing, really, if the expectation is organic to the story. But the events feel forced because "Flowers" and "Transitway" are constructed on the too-real grids of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and the characters are painted tactile and normal (a husband, wife and their college friend trying to make sense of their complicated relationships, and two teachers facing their first day of retirement make up the stories, respectively). The disconnected and abrupt end turns become a function of the artist, not the art.

These flaws might well sink a collection, but Hirshberg redeems "American Morons" with a two finely wrought tales of suspense, "Devil's Smile" and "The Muldoon," both of which concern the tragic death of loved ones -- the first at the hands of a frozen sea, the second at the hands of a frozen son -- and how those deaths infect the living. They reaffirm what Hirshberg teaches us in his title story, and which Poe, too, believed: that the most horrifying monsters are those that walk among us. *

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