Fishy Splishy Wishy Hup Huzzoo!
Jonathan Lethem can write. No doubt fans of his impressive body of work (Dissident Gardens, Motherless Brooklyn, and Chronic City to name but a few) are already well aware of this fact. It doesn’t really come as a surprise to me either, but damn, I’d forgotten just how well he excels at this process. How flawlessly crafted each and every single one of his sentences can feel. How imaginative and inventive he can be. He’s not just stringing together words to tell you a story, instead, like a master craftsman, it seems as though he’s meticulously arranging combinations of words until they appear in the exact order necessary to drive home his intended point. He paints pretty pictures of the messy landscapes that are life, and in Lucky Alan: And Other Stories, he delivers nine new ingenious tales for us to gaze at and reflect upon in wonder.
If this collection were an album, then I’d be forced to tell you that it begins with the slowly building, steady tempo of the emotionally devastating title track. It’s a story of bromance, jealously, gossip, and death that soars thanks to its distinctively urban beat. It’s very Lethem-esque another words, both in terms of its setting and its emotionally charged subject matter. As good as it is however, if I were in charge of the A&R department tasked with picking the lead single to release for radio play, that honor would most definitely have to go to track number two. Whatever the short story equivalent of winning a Grammy for Song of the Year is, The Sentence King should easily take it home. I’m sure Kayne would disagree, but then again, he doesn’t really read books does he?
The story hilariously explores what happens when a couple becomes so enraptured by the works of their reclusive literary hero that they feel the need to track him down at his Westchester home so they can present themselves to him as gifts. Their king of sentences is now an aged old man—one who requires an inflatable donut to relieve his frequent bouts of anal discomfort—and unsurprisingly, he’s less than impressed by the pair’s sudden appearance at his place of residence. Eventually he begrudgingly agrees to spend some time with them at a more neutral location, a motel, where he inflicts a rather brilliant bit of sweet payback on his bewitched fans.
Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood? Sentences were bodies, too, as horny as the flesh-envelopes we wore around the house all day.
From here the next few cuts take on a much more experimental, adventurous vibe, one that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke would surely be proud of. In the fairy-tale like piece Traveler Home, Wolves deliver a newborn baby to a reclusive man on the verge of a storm. In the surreal Procedure in Plain Air, a man is purposely imprisoned in a man made hole outside a coffee shop on a busy New York street. In the unabashedly absurd Their Back Pages, a handful of washed up comic book character has-beens crash land together on a deserted island only to discover that even in their most desperate hour they’re unable to abandon the archetypes they’ve been assigned. In the haunting The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear, a strange, decrepit blog comes under attack from ominous sources. Each of these mind bending stories works, thanks in large part to Lethem’s refusal to handhold his audience through every experience. By giving each piece the breathing room it requires he magically brings each to life in spectacular fashion.
The collection closes on more familiar ground, but never loses any of its offbeat charm. While the true stand out of the latter half is the closing Pending Vegan, a cautionary tale for a highly medicated generation that finds a father dealing with the odd side-effects of a prescription drug withdrawal in the middle of a crowded Sea World show, The Porn Critic and The Empty Room are also both stellar examples of Lethem’s ability to get inside our heads as well, to present us with seemingly obvious situations, and then demand that we evaluate what’s occurring in a new and uniquely different light.
Lucky Alan is considerable collection. Perhaps it loses a few points for being exactly that—a greatest hits type compilation of stories previously published elsewhere without the addition of any new material—but one really can’t balk too much at finally having these nine striking examples of storytelling excellence bound together in one compact volume.