THE WONDERS OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD
By David Gates
Knopf. 258 pp. $23
HOW ANIMALS MATE
By Daniel Mueller
Overlook. 191 pp, $23.95
Reviewed by James Hynes
Writing about bad behavior appeals to fiction writers in the same way that playing villains appeals to actors: The artist gets to indulge in conduct, and say things, that no one should do or say in real life. Bad behavior is fun to write, for one thing, and writing about it approaches a kind of cynical truth, for another. In fact, there's probably more validity to cultural conservatives' critique of modern American fiction than most fiction writers are willing to admit: Many American writers, literary or popular, genre or mainstream, from Melville to Toni Morrison, take a pretty jaundiced view of human nature. But who can blame us? Given the right set of difficult circumstances, the odds are pretty good that most people will let you down.
David Gates has already staked his claim as a chronicler of bad behavior in two strikingly entertaining novels, Jernigan and Pres-ton Falls. In both novels he specialized in a particular subset of bad behavers, to wit, early middle-aged white male professionals -- overeducated, foul-mouthed, pop-culturally savvy, substance-abusing East Coast guys whose self-pity, narcissism and bitter wit have driven the women in their lives up to (in Preston Falls), and over (in Jernigan), the limits of endurance. Jernigan especially is an aria of male self-pity, a simultaneously harrowing and hilarious performance redeemed by the author's melancholy compassion for his narrator and his consummate attention to character detail.
Both of these qualities are on full display in Gates's first collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World. Each of the stories in this collection turns on the presence, more often the absence, and sometimes just the possibility, of a disinterested love; Gates writes of a generation that tries to act as if such a love were at least possible, but most of whom are too selfish, weak or fearful to give and receive it. Not for nothing does Gates, in the story "Saturn," invoke Forster's "Only connect," and not for nothing does he do it obliquely, as a crossword puzzle clue -- "Forsterian dictum (two words)."
This indirection allows Gates to explore the ways that men and women can hold the right thing to do in their sights and still -- though not always -- fail to do it. In "The Bad Thing," for example, a pregnant trophy wife -- a smart young woman who ought to have known better -- learns too late just what she means to her older husband; while in "A Wronged Husband," the title character is forced to confront how relieved he is by his wife's infidelity, mainly because it lets him off the hook for his own dalliance. Both stories show Gates working as he does in his novels, with almost painfully self-conscious characters full of rue and bitter wit, who know better than they behave.
The two most memorable stories, however, represent a departure. In "Star Baby," a gay man, Billy, returns from New York to his hometown in order to look after the child of his drug-addicted sister, and he discovers that he likes being a father. The story is still recognizably a Gates story -- funny, knowing and melancholy -- but Billy manages to be both good and utterly human, one of those rare figures in Gates's fiction, and American fiction generally, who care more for the welfare of someone else -- his nephew -- than for their own. The narrator of "Vigil," an elderly father whose married daughter has survived a car wreck, is likewise a departure from Gates's usual hyper-aware, culture-marinated characters. He's an "ordinary" working guy who, throughout the story, manages to lie to himself about just how bad things can get -- his wife left him years ago, his son-in-law's a thug, and his daughter was leaving her lover at a motel when she was in the wreck. But his calm confidence in just taking care of business -- looking after his daughter and his nephew -- is not only a hallmark of his generation of American males but a kind of grace.
In pursuing a jaundiced view of the world, writers run the risk of lapsing into a kind of reverse sentimentality: All People Are Basically Good can be flipped with surprising ease into Everybody Sucks. The latter view often manifests itself as a bullying righteousness that insists that life at the bottom -- life at its most degrading and sordid -- is Real Life, and that to look away from suffering, cruelty, bodily decay and violence is a sort of moral cowardice. This, in its way, is every bit as sentimental as, say, the TV show "Touched by an Angel," since both narrative approaches are equally reductive; both are rigid templates within which each difficult situation is resolved by a foregone conclusion -- the Triumph of the Human Spirit in one case, the Worst That Can Happen in the other.
The characters in Daniel Mueller's skillfully crafted first collection of short stories, How Animals Mate, alternate between thuggish suburban children (a peeping Tom, petty vandals) and severely put-upon working-class folk (Alaskan fish cannery workers, a lesbian mom who works as a stripper), all of whom either perpetrate, witness or suffer acts of surprising cruelty, which are mostly violent, and always gruesome and alarming. In the most memorable story in the collection, "Ice Breaking," a grieving gay man, Sy, drags the dismembered corpse of his lover and business partner (the lover had AIDS, and threw himself in front of a train) across a frozen Minnesota lake, in order to sink the body through an ice fishing hole. After that Sy, who is also infected with AIDS, attempts suicide by eating fresh fish with a hook embedded in each piece -- and this is only the first half of the story.
There is no gainsaying Mueller's literary skill -- which is considerable -- nor would I impugn the sincerity of his view of the world; there are more things in heaven or earth, God knows, than are reflected in this reviewer's experience. And there is no requirement that literature must be hopeful or happy or redemptive -- take Jacobean drama, for example, or Celine, or William Burroughs, or even some of Shakespeare. Yet there is a requirement that even shocking events must be believable, even to a reader who does not share the author's harsh view of life, and I remain unconvinced by most of these stories. Nearly all of them end with not one but two and sometimes three can-you-top-this grotesqueries, showing that for all its pretense to tough-mindedness and unflinching truth-telling, reverse sentimentality can be every bit as predictable and unrewarding as the more treacly variety.
Still, Mueller's stories are certainly vivid, and I'm liable to remember scenes from them -- whether I like it or not -- for much longer than I may remember David Gates's stories. But it's Gates's sensibility that will stick with me -- full of bitterness and disappointment but wry, nuanced and, in its own hip, slapdash way, wise.
James Hynes is the author of "Publish and Perish" and "The Wild Colonial Boy."