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Lucky Alan and Other Stories


Lucky Alan and Other Stories

With the publication of four novels --- THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET, CHRONIC CITY and DISSIDENT GARDENS --- in fewer than 12 years, Jonathan Lethem clearly has been hard at work. But it's been more than a decade since his last story collection, MEN AND CARTOONS, was published. LUCKY ALAN fills that gap with a blend of Lethem's off-kilter humor and more serious fare. With only nine stories, five of which previously have appeared in The New Yorker, it has to be characterized as a slight collection, and one can't help but wonder whether Lethem and his publisher should have waited for a more substantial offering.

Among the most appealing stories is "Traveler Home." Marked by a narrative that features numerous oddly clipped sentences ("Traveler waking. Journey begins. No dreams."), it's the fable-like tale of a man who receives a foundling child in a blizzard from a family of wolves.  Despite its bizarre premise, there is a sense of atmosphere and a real heart that simply isn't present elsewhere in the book.

"Readers who already are fans of Jonathan Lethem's short stories undoubtedly will find enough to enjoy in LUCKY ALAN. But it's not a work that's likely to gain him large numbers of new admirers."

That's the problem with stories like "The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear," which chronicles the struggles of a blog writer, and "The Porn Critic," where a young man employed as a clerk and newsletter writer for a pornographic video store called Sex Machines finds himself in a disquieting real life encounter with his source material. In "Procedure in Plain Air," the protagonist watches New York City municipal workers dig a hole in a Manhattan street and imprison a man there, as he eventually assumes an ambiguous role in the man's confinement. While the premises of these stories are intriguing, they all suffer from an emotionally distancing coolness.

Lethem's fondness for this kind of clever conceit is most evident in the story "Their Back Pages." In it, a group of cartoon characters that includes the Dingbat Clan (father Theophobe, mother Keener, son Spark and daughter Lisa) find themselves marooned on an island after a plane crash. Among their fellow passengers are a clown, a hunter, a theater critic, a character named King Phnudge, and C'Krrrarn, a monster. Over the course of the story's 20 pages, they adapt to their new circumstances in what can only be described as characteristically cartoonish fashion.

In "The King of Sentences," Lethem creates a pair of acolytes --- writers and bookstore clerks --- who seek out a reclusive writer in the post office of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. "The King of Sentences only wrote," the narrator explains, "beavering away himself on a dam of quintessence, while wholly oblivious of public indifference and of a sales record by now likely descending to rungs occupied by poets." Their encounter, which ends in what only can be described as a bizarre fashion that's consistent with his admirers' passion for his work, is a fitting takedown of literary celebrity worshippers.

"Pending Vegan," which concludes the collection on a stronger note, is the story of Paul Espeseth, a depressive in the midst of what sounds like an ill-advised withdrawal from the drug Celexa. He travels with his wife and four-year-old twin daughters to Sea World, a place where he "felt squeezed into grooves of expertly predicted responses and behavior, of expenditures of sweat and hilarity and currency from his wallet and also his soul." Over the course of the day, his unmedicated distress deepens as he muses on subjects as inappropriately connected as the fate of the Jack Russell terrier the family once owned and the Holocaust.

Readers who already are fans of Jonathan Lethem's short stories undoubtedly will find enough to enjoy in LUCKY ALAN. But it's not a work that's likely to gain him large numbers of new admirers. It would be a shame if passing on this book led readers unfamiliar with Lethem to ignore his work. He's one of our more interesting writers, an assessment new readers are more likely to share if they start with some of his more substantial works.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 6, 2015

Lucky Alan and Other Stories
by Jonathan Lethem

  • Publication Date: February 23, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101873663
  • ISBN-13: 9781101873663