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Book review: 'What He's Poised to Do' by Ben Greenman

14 stories, in letter form, are emotionally engaging.

June 20, 2010|By Steve Almond, Special to the Los Angeles Times

What He's Poised to Do

Stories

Ben Greenman

Harper Perennial: 172 pp., $13.99 paper

I read a lot of short fiction — it's one of my healthier addictions — so I hope you'll take this statement as more than a passing impression: It's been a long time since I've read a story collection as assured and persuasive as Ben Greenman's "What He's Poised to Do."

Greenman long has displayed a dazzling command of the language and a boundless imagination. But his five previous books often favored cleverness over genuine feeling. This slender volume is astonishing precisely for its depth of emotional engagement.

Each of the 14 tales arrives as a letter or a series of letters with a postal stamp establishing the setting and era. Greenman uses the epistolary form to splendid effect. His tone throughout is one of compulsive intimacy. In "Hope," a lovesick Cuban details the wanderings of his heart to a lover long since lost. "I have hope," he writes, "but I am unsure whether I am to act on it or not. If I act, there is the possibility of gain but a greater possibility of loss. The sweetness of hope will last only until I take action, at which point it will vanish. I force my mind to realize this. Is hope a spiritual state? I carry out this petition in hope's name."

This lovely passage serves as a common cri de coeur for Greenman's diverse cast. They are all teetering on the brink of some exalted risk, both enslaved to longing and enraptured by it.

By traditional standards of storytelling, this wouldn't seem to bode well. After all, we don't want to see characters wallow. We want them to take action and suffer the consequences. But Greenman makes a compelling case for a more supple view of plot. The narrator of "Against Samantha" — a young banker living in the Roaring '20s who comes up hard against the realization that he loves his fiancée's mother more than the girl herself — puts it this way:

"I did not wish to crush her spirit, only to free my own. I had no real sense of my options and no real belief in my freedom. This may not make for much of a story, and yet it is every story, told all the time, in every language, with every available flourish. Man is asphyxiated by choice, not in the abstract but in the concrete. It hardens around him."

I'm not sure that Fitzgerald himself could have put it more convincingly.

Greenman's people aren't merely wallowing: They battle their own excessive feeling, enacting the essential human struggle between self-realization and self-protection. The book's most devastating example is the missive sent by French army captain Claude Etienne Minié to his daughter, Isabel. Minié spends most of the dispatch detailing the invention of the bullet that bears his name. Only on the final page does he dare speak of his own life:

"But what of me? I left the service and met your mother.... I was hungrier for her than I had ever been for anything in my life. I hope you do not blush to read this.... I wish that one day you will find a man with as great an appetite for you. Nine months later you were born and your mother died. I do not know a more elegant way to describe this turn of events. My sorrow raised you. I hope that it did not poison you."

This revelation arrives with all the wrenching force of its previous suppression — like a bullet, you could say.

It's a rare pleasure to encounter prose as supple and lyrical as Greenman's. He shifts seamlessly from the terse dialogue of a Midwestern housewife to the playful musings of a lovesick academic to the brutal banter of a jaded literary groupie. His physical descriptions are consistently breathtaking. "The features of his face were mostly absent, pushed down into the pudding of his flesh," he writes of one unfortunate specimen. "He had the appearance of something not just fat but flattened."

A few of the weaker stories have an evasive quality, with certain dramatic opportunities unmet. The title story, for example, comes off as a tepid snatch of minimalism — all wind-up and no pitch. "What We Believe but Cannot Praise" sets up like an updated version of "Goodbye, Columbus." We follow the travails of a college kid apprenticed to a pair of eccentric lawyers. He quickly meets a curvaceous colleague who inflames his heart. But the peril of a true romance never materializes. Instead, the story becomes a long, gentle parable about the folly of nostalgia. "Can a man be happy in memory or only lonely?" our hero wonders.

The question haunts most of these stories, with their stubborn emphasis on those forms of desire that render us helpless and on our ensuing regrets. Greenman has the ear of a mimic, the mind of a philosopher and the timing of a stand-up comic. What sets this terrific collection above his previous work is his heart, which is that of a reluctant romantic.

Almond is the author of two story collections, "My Life in Heavy Metal" and "The Evil B.B. Chow."

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