Book World: Brief Reviews of 'Dear Husband,' 'Thing Around Your Neck' and More

By Michael Lindgren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unstoppable: Joyce Carol Oates's "Dear Husband," (Ecco, $24.99) is savage, poetic and ruthless. Oates deals with characters and themes she has often covered before -- violent men, desperate women, lives scarred by alcohol and poverty -- but her touch has never been surer, her insights never more piercing. At least one of these stories ("Landfill") can break your heart, and several of the others, astonishingly, are among the best things she's ever done. Oates's naysayers, who are legion, will someday come to accept that we are witnessing the steady unfolding of one of the towering careers in American letters.

New Kid: Wells Tower's debut collection has generated effulgent praise, which is puzzling. "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24) is moderately engaging, but in the end there's not a lot here: some light, but not much heat. Tower has a hipster's weakness for the showily offbeat; his characters come at their lives from odd angles, as if shyly proud of their eccentricities. If this book, with its mixture of the deadpan and the earnest, the ironic and the whimsical, were somehow to emerge from a time capsule, future generations would have an anthropologically perfect example of American fiction of the 2000s subgenre Quirky Young Misfit.

Across the Sea: "The Thing Around Your Neck" (Knopf, $24.95) is the third book from acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who deploys her calm, descriptive prose to portray women in Nigeria and America who are forced to match their wits against threats ranging from marauding guerrillas to microwave ovens. Within its somewhat narrow range -- the men are all feckless brutes, the women invariably resourceful and spunky -- these stories are haunting. The devastating final piece, "The Headstrong Historian," seems to carry the whole history of a continent in its bones: tragic, defiant, revelatory.

Love Slav: Reviewers find it difficult to resist comparing Aleksandar Hemon to Nabokov, since both men are expatriates whose preternatural facility in their second, acquired language seems shadowed by the ghostly overtones of their first. The stories in "Love and Obstacles" (Riverhead, $25.95) are intricate and droll, with tricky narrative rhythms that only occasionally stumble over self-consciously literary language. Like Adichie, Hemon gets well-earned mileage out of the reliable trope of the foreigner encountering the excesses of American culture. His narrative inventiveness and the sardonic twist of his humor set this collection above the crowd.

Weird Science: Kevin Wilson's fiction feels like the work of a species entirely distinct from Aleksandar Hemon. For Slavic soul, substitute Southern anomie; in place of elegant continental modernism, put scattershot pop-culture mash-ups. Hemon writes characters who hate college football and cheeseburgers; Wilson depicts a puppy-love homosexual relationship that plays out within the mayhem of the video game "Mortal Kombat." "Tunneling to the Center of the Earth" (Ecco/HarperPerennial; paperback, $13.99) gets under your skin, though; Wilson's little time-bomb fables have a surrealist zip, like miniature Magritte paintings come to life.

Same Bright Lights: For a quarter-century now, Jay McInerney has been telling fundamentally the same story: Innocent newcomer to the neon jungle gains the world -- or at least a book contract, a bespoke suit and a gorgeous girlfriend -- only to lose his soul. "How It Ended" (Knopf, $25.95) presents a dozen amusing but ultimately self-indulgent variations on that theme. The short story is perhaps not the best display case for McInerney's gifts. His characters need narrative time for their world-weary carapaces to crack, revealing hidden depths and vulnerabilities; in the shorter format, their sardonic defense mechanisms come across as shallow and bitchy.

Downtown: Mary Gaitskill's career hits a speed bump with "Don't Cry" (Pantheon, $23.95), the oddly subdued follow-up to her breakout novel, "Veronica." These new stories sport a fillip of the surreal and a dash of riot-girl sass, but the prose feels simultaneously vague and fussed-over, in that portentous MFA-workshop way. The narratives, which often depict damaged or unhappy women bumping up against indifference or cruelty, seem unfocused and tired; at least two feature long descriptions of dream sequences, a sure sign of authorial laziness.

Uptown: If Mary Gaitskill is your impossibly cool older sister who wears black and smokes unfiltered cigarettes, then Caitlin Macy is your stylish and wildly popular younger sister who just drove off with the homecoming king. Macy's fiction is all reader-friendly surfaces and sheen, and "Spoiled" (Random House, $24) comprises nine chronicles of preppy women gone off the rails. The ruthless acuity of Macy's social observations puts "Spoiled" a notch -- a slender notch, mind you -- above those books with pink covers and martini glasses. Most telling sentence: "The woman quoted amicably that oft-repeated epigram about nannies in New York, that the good ones always got passed along." Oh, right, that oft-repeated epigram.

Lindgren is a musician and poet who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

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