BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH

HIDEOUS MEN

By David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown. 273 pp. $24

Reviewed by Bart Schneider

How often have you gone out for a quiet dinner but ended up cursing your fate as a loudmouth jerk holds forth at the next table? In his new collection of stories, David Foster Wallace, author of the walloping literary triumph Infinite Jest, presents a restaurant filled with these gangsters of narcissism, men, mostly, given to dazzling rants about their sexual prowess and infirmities, or gone clinically numb, describing the ways the mind works when it studies itself too closely.

Wallace's stories range from single-page monologues to dense "thought" experiments that circle in on themselves as endlessly as a string of suburban culs de sac. A series of pop-quiz interrogations leapfrogs through the collection. These quizzes, a cross between the math story-problems that assaulted us in grade school and the existential questionnaires composed in the '60s by Swiss writer Max Frisch, nearly drown in their own footnotes.

The author demonstrates a keen interest in the plumbing of digestion and sexual union, and manages to create, along the way, a kind of sexual theme park for obsessive compulsives. Since Wallace's method here involves a potpourri of metafictional tics, from a microscopic fidelity to detail to a hall of self-referencing mirrors, it's clear that one of his purposes is to challenge the reader's aversive instincts. Want to throw my book across the room? he seems to say. Try it. Do you feel that you know yourself better now? Would you consider switching your medications? Readers who persevere, however, will discover some treasures within the thicket, and have a chance to engage with the work, in miniature, of one of America's most original writers, whose engine of inquiry is always set in overdrive.

In "Forever Overhead" the author presents the mindscape of a boy on his 13th birthday, as he climbs to the high dive at a public pool. We watch the budding adolescent rise from his Yogi Bear towel, leave the safety of his snoozing parents, and set out on an unwitting initiation rite. A broad splash of sensual data accompanies the boy up the ladder to his reckoning on the tongue of the diving platform, as those behind wait impatiently for him to dive. Like most of the characters in this collection, the nameless 13-year-old sees everything, from up high, but understands little.

The young wife in "Adult World," obsessed to the cusp of madness with the mechanical aspects of her prodigious sex life with her husband, practically overlooks the relationship's emotional life. In the clinical report that follows the story, we learn that, after seven or eight years of marriage, the couple's now-bimonthly sex is . . . both a submission to and a celebration of certain freely embraced realities and that the couple "were ready thus to begin, in a calm and mutually respectful way, to discuss having children (together)."

Although Wallace's stories could not be more stylistically distinct from those of Raymond Carver, the sucked-out hollowness left in the wake of Wallace's best stories recalls the minimalist master. Wallace writes particularly well about the ways that shame and awkwardness feed each other. In a section of the title piece, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," a man describes the acoustic and olfactory horrors of his father's career as a bathroom attendant in a stately hotel. "The door tells the whole story. MEN . . . . Millionaires who do not tip. Natty men who splatter the bowl and tip a nickel. Heirs who steal towels. Tycoons who pick their noses with their thumb. Philanthropists who throw cigar butts on the floor. Self-made men who spit in the sink."

Does the son assume the father's shame? "Yes, and do I admire the fortitude of this humblest of working men? The stoicism? The Old World grit? To stand there all those years, never one sick day, serving? Or do I despise him, you're wondering, feel disgust, contempt for any man who'd stand effaced in that miasma and dispense towels for coins?"

When the son describes his father's habit of averting his eyes to preserve the dignity of the men he serves, readers are faced, as in many of these fictions, with a picture of the pitiful world turned, miraculously, to a glowing, human sorrow.

Bart Schneider is editor of the Hungry Mind Review and author of the novel "Blue Bossa."