The EPONYMOUS first story in John Kessel's new collection, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence," gets straight to the point. A hardscrabble ex-con is whisked with his sometime moll to a fantastical place where they're handed bags of cash. Easy, no? There's a single hint, a mere peek through the window, to set off alarm bells. By the time you figure out that Baum refers to L. Frank Baum, author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," and that all isn't right in Munchkin land, the story's whisked itself to a happy ending.
Or has it? You can't be too sure in Kessel's speculative worlds, when even a sexual utopia on the moon can have its dark side. And beware anything actually marked "happy ending," as it's, at best, only ambiguously so.
Many of those worlds are curiously and ingeniously borrowed from other writers. Besides Baum, we revisit Mary Shelley and Jane Austen -- in the same story, no less -- and Flannery O'Connor. But Kessel's stories are to fanfic what plastic explosives are to Play-Doh. He shapes them from the perspective of troublesome minor characters, and it can seem rather fanciful until you realize their fuse has been lit.
In "Every Angel Is Terrifying," the sociopathic Misfit from O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" continues on after that story's horrific massacre. Renamed Railroad, he adopts the grandmother's cat, settles into a job as a short-order cook and begins a doomed courtship of his landlady. If Railroad sees the cat as some sort of good luck charm for a fresh start, the reader recognizes it as a medium eerily linking him to the family he's killed. And that certainly doesn't bode well for his landlady.
Kessel's also a master satirist: "The Red Phone" includes two lonely hearts whom we only get to know through intermediaries in one of the stranger, funnier telephone conversations ever imagined. A pity if there's no 900-line somewhere like the one in the story, manned by bored geniuses talking dirty to befuddled strangers. It's as if Kessel has explored an entire landscape of losers for this collection -- some of them lovable, some of them monstrous -- and often it's hard to tell.
Erno is one such creation, a teen typically fumbling into manhood in "Stories for Men" -- except that Erno is coming of age in a matriarchy where masculinity's no asset. "Stories" is the crown jewel of "A Lunar Quartet," which is set in futuristic colonies on the moon. In this, Kessel's world-building is so complete and seamlessly woven into the stories that the reader is dropped effortlessly beneath the colony's airtight dome amid leafy parks and juniper groves.
The colony's characterized both by sexual licentiousness and spotless scientific efficiency. Is this a geek paradise, or what? There ought to be plenty to keep a horny genetics prodigy busy through artificial night and day.
At the start, Erno's crammed into a smoke-filled bar listening as a comedian rants about his sex organ and derides women. Not exactly strong stuff by Earth standards, but it gets the place raided by police, including Erno's unsmiling, law-and-order mom, Pamela. Through Erno's restless, irritable adolescent gaze we can see Pamela struggling to obey her society's maxim to "keep your sons close" even as Erno wriggles beyond her reach. And we can spot the emotional freight train bearing down on Erno as he's drawn into his hero's subversions and begins to mistake potentially lethal misogyny for manliness. As with most truly memorable coming-of-age stories, tragedy and self-realization strike at once and are inextricably linked.
Though all Kessel's characters are vividly drawn and inhabit three-dimensional space -- no cardboard cutouts or villains from central casting here -- misunderstood teenage geeks like Erno are his masterpieces.
Even when a story fails, as in the melodramatic "The Snake Girl," Kessel manages to draw a believably angst-ridden college junior attempting to make his own version of First Contact with the female of the species. Inexplicably set in the '60s, its hero, Ben, struggles with the aftermath of his first sexual experience. The story is heavy on snake symbolism and low on plot (and allusions to Milton's "Paradise Lost" feel embarrassingly overdone).
There are many paradises lost in "The Baum Plan" but none will be mourned more utterly than the idyllic Pemberly from Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." And that's a compliment. Kessel barges in on Lizzie and Darcy's happily ever after to spend time with Mary, the plain, moralizing middle Bennett sister whose marriage sell-by date is clearly up. And then Victor Frankenstein shows up. Ah, that would change everything, wouldn't it?
With typical finesse, Kessel has Mary confront both her inner monsters and the real thing at once. Spinster Mary sitting down with the bachelor creature is probably one of the more chilling near-misses in the romance genre. But this is of course no romance, and it's charmingly pulled off with tongue-in-cheek aplomb as Kessel mimics Austen's writing, reminding readers of "Pride's" famous opening and its assertions about truths universally acknowledged.
There is at least one universal truth running through this collection. Rejection, unlike love, is a sure thing. Its contours can be measured, its gravity weighed. In that, Kessel's losers surely aren't alone in stumbling off the path to paradise.
Anne Boles Levy is a critic and co-founder of the Cybils literary awards at dadtalk.typepad.com/cybils.