More Vollmann.

Mr. Vollmann collects pistols and likes to shoot them.‘Mr. Vollmann collects pistols and likes to shoot them.’ 

Now this is how you start a review:

I was sitting on the train one day chipping away at William T. Vollmann’s latest slab of obsessional nonfiction when my friend Tsia, who incidentally is not an underage Thai street whore, offered to save me time with a blurby one-sentence review based entirely on the book’s cover and my synopsis of its first 50 pages. “Just write that it’s like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker,” she said, “but with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.” This struck me as good advice, and I was all set to take it, but as I worked my way through the book’s final 1,250 pages, I found I had to modify it, slightly, to read as follows: Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote seance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)

Separation of Artist and Art

by Christopher Higgs


Saturday, Adam did a post that included reference to Heidegger, which aroused a comment dismissing Heidegger because of his Nazi connection (which was later appended to be a joke, but still…). I always frown when people make that argument, the same way I frown when people discuss Woody Allen and then somebody goes “Yeah, but he married his daughter.” I always want to say, so what? What difference does it make to their work? If you want to talk about them as people that’s one thing, but their work is something else.

The flip side is the recent Polanski debacle in which I saw/read many folks making the argument that he shouldn’t be prosecuted because he made great movies. I find this equally frown-worthy. I love Rosemary’s Baby as much as the next cinephile, but dude forced a child to have anal sex – who cares if Chinatown is the greatest movie ever made, that shouldn’t impact his prison sentence.

Why can’t we separate the artist from the art? Does it matter to you if a writer is a “good person” or a “bad person”? Does it change what you choose to read, or how you read something? If so, why? In what ways? Would you be more or less likely to buy my book if you found out I ran a bi-monthly baby-eating party in my basement?*

*for the record, I don’t have a basement

Standing Ovation For Maureen Tkacik’s “Gladwell for Dummies”

by Justin Taylor

What, me huckster?

What, me huckster?

Tkacik’s indictment of Gladwell is incisive, epic, merciless, and right. It runs a full seven web pages and is worth reading every word. Now, the next time you see someone reading Blink and reflexively go to slap it out of their hand, you’ll be able to explain why you did it. Here’s a choice gleaning from fairly late in the piece. Click through to start at the beginning.

And so once again we find Gladwell muckraking in the trenches of banal cliché and thereby reinforcing said cliché–and, more insidiously, banality itself. In Outliers, as in Blink, he appears to assume that the unexamined life is the only sort his readers could be living, though lessons with titles like “Demographic Luck” and “The Importance of Being Jewish” suggest that he may have downgraded his expectation of who his readers are from the less savvy to the truly oblivious. Outliers contains a few new terms and morsels of trivia: the 10,000-Hour Rule describes the number of practice hours one must put in to attain true genius; we also learn that fourteen of the seventy-five individuals on Gladwell’s list of the “richest people in human history” were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. (Cleopatra is No. 21.) But for the most part, the book’s first section, “Opportunity,” contains nothing that will enlighten anyone who has given even a small fraction of 10,000 hours of thought to the word’s meaning.

Also, it’s worth looking at this piece in light of this website’s ongoing discussion of what good criticism can or should look like.  The piece is occasioned by the publication of Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, but it could hardly be considered a mere “review” of that book. And yet, it’s not a NY/LRB-style essay, where the book(s) provide a sort of anchor for a larger discussion about something else. Tkacik seems completely at ease in Gladwell’s catalogue, moving with an apparent lack of effort through and between his books. She has a clear thesis that is developed, amplified, and otherwise nuanced over the course of the essay.  A writer who disagrees vehemently with Tkacik’s thesis and all her supporting arguments–or a writer who couldn’t care less about Gladwell one way or the other–still has a lot to gain from reading this essay. It’s a stand-out example of a particular kind of long-form criticism.

criticism of criticism: think first and speak second–or not at all

by Justin Taylor

adapted from a letter I wrote in an ongoing exchange I’ve been having with another writer/editor about the state of book reviews in the “online scene”…

This is a dynamic, emergent scene we’ve got going here, and we all learn on the job to some degree–me as much as anyone–but my baseline expectation is that if someone puts their work out into the public sphere, they are asserting that it belongs there, and are prepared for it to be judged against whatever else is out there already. Not in the sense of competition, but in the sense of discerning value–as in, I took the time to read this, what am I getting back for my time? What does this thing purport to do, and has it succeeded in doing so? I don’t think that’s too harsh a position to take, in fact it seems like the absolute bare minimum. (Our standards, probably, should be much higher than they are if we ever want to push ourselves beyond what we’ve already achieved–but we don’t have time to get into that right now.)

I think the real problem is that many people in our scene want to “review” because they want to be published, and the near complete absence of standards for reviews means you can pretty much always get a review “published” somewhere or other. But the people who write such “reviews” don’t have anything to say about a given book beyond “I liked it” or “this is my friend” or “this sucked.” I’m not sure if that’s because they actually can’t read critically, if they simply can’t articulate their thoughts, or if they’re simply disinclined to exert extra effort when the bar for achieving the “end goal” of publication on this or that website is so low it couldn’t possibly be out of reach–may possibly in fact have to be reached down for.

Or else people want to “review” books for the same reason they want to click the “like” icon under somebody’s facebook post. And I’ll be the first one to defend that kind of impulse. There’s a place for that. I write blog posts like that all the time. Sometimes it really is all that you want to say, or sometimes the work doesn’t warrant extended consideration. It’s there to be taken or left. But praising or damning a book is the work of a single sentence, paragraph at most. If the review is to be any longer–that is, if it is to truly *be* a review, it needs to do something more, or anyway, something else

Criticism and reviews are both meta-forms–if they don’t in some way amplify or complicate the subject of their focus, then they shouldn’t exist.  So much of what passes for reviews or criticism that I read online seems not simply to fail to contribute to my understanding of the work under review, but actually to disrupt that understanding, or worse, to degrade the work. Put as simply and viciously as I can: a “reviewer”‘s windy, incoherent, sychophantic paean to the virtues of _______ is going to leave the reader (that is, the reader of the review) less inclined to read the work under review, because the work’s primary champion seems to be some kind of idiot. The drooling happiness of the idiot impresses nobody, and nobody wants to invest their money or time in the book that impressed the idiot. We understand this implicitly when we attack the NYT’s staff reviewers, so why is it so hard to see–and harder to still to call out–when its happening among our own ranks?

DOUBLE YOUR POETRY FUN: Chris Tonelli’s No Theater, G.C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo

by Justin Taylor

Christopher Salerno reviews Chris Tonelli at the Tarpaulin Sky blog. Click through to read the whole review.

Chris Tonelli’s chapbook, No Theater, the first from Brave Men Press, feels like a flagship collection. Tonelli’s poems are highly Apollonian. As a whole they are sculptural, relying largely on their form, moderation, measure, and order. These poems are leaden, unmovable yet spare: “You wear your mask to bed, / so you never have to be asleep. / I’ll wear mine / while I’m awake, / so I never have to / be awake.”


Darcie Dennigan reviews G.C. Waldrep at the Rumpus. Same click deal as before.

On the front flap of this book of prose poems structured after a 19th century musical primer, G.C. Waldrep prompts us, “What does it mean to listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings?” While I have sincere doubts that even Waldrep knows exactly what this means, the directive is liberating. No matter how intimidatingly intellectual these poems might look to the casual browser, the poet himself is basically saying, “Hey, no critical analysis required.” And so, over the last six months, I’ve made Archicembalo into background noise—I am reporting on it not as a reader but as a listener.

Is Masocriticism the Only Way?

by Amy McDaniel

gorey-a-is-for-amy1When I teach undergrad lit classes, I often start with a little chat about why we read, what poetry and stories do for us, or, in other words, why they are required to take the class. A few times, I’ve brought up the Kafka quote about a book serving as an ax for the frozen sea within us, or the Dickinson one about how she knows something is a poem if she feels like the top of her head has been blown off. Invariably, my students fail to see why either of these is a desirable outcome.

Yet there is certainly an enduring trend in some circles of reviewing and back-cover-blurbing wherein the highest praise for a book is how much injury it has done to the reader-critic. “That book destroyed/killed/frightened/destabilized/wrecked me” seems always to be a compliment. It’s trendy to say that reading oughtn’t be therapy, or comfort, or safety, or anything other than terribly, personally debilitating.

Is this mere trend, a new way to say the same thing, or is it really this way? Are we all so desensitized that we’re happy for any kind of feeling? Or are writers (who tend to be the ones behind this particular brand of criticism) engaged in elaborate sm rituals, in which we get to be sadists when we write and masochists when we read? Is there room for reading good prose or poetry to act as a stopgap, however illusive and broken and temporary, against impending death, and betrayal, and loss?

A fine piece of misdirection

by Matthew Simmons


I’m only passingly familiar with the work of Steven Jesse Bernstein. I heard “The Man Upstairs” on this week’s (October 16) episode of Over the Edge from Don Joyce of the band Negativland, and searched to find the piece isolated from the bed of ambient noise and audio collage—the stop, start, rewind, replay nature of Over the Edge.

Here’s a transcription of the piece. It was found on this website:

The man upstairs is playing cards again, shuffling the cards on the carpet. He is alone, drinking grapefruit juice, playing solitaire, and masturbating once or twice a day. “You are my only friend,” he said to me one day while shaving. “Oh, that’s not true!” “Maybe not,” he said, “but it probably is true.” This hand is not going too well. He pounds on the floor and says, “What a shit layout!” I can hear everything he says up there. Almost everything he does, I can hear. When he dies, I will not hear that. I will hear nothing. He picks up the cards off the carpet and reshuffles. Then he goes to the refrigerator for more juice. Click, bang, like a gun – that’s the refrigerator door. Open it, pour the juice, close it. He sits on the carpet and deals the cards, he drinks the juice and studies the layout. I know the man’s habits, I know how he thinks. I’ve been listening to him go about his daily business for a long time. Longer than he realizes. He has been alone up there forever it seems, shuffling the cards, drinking the juice, tickling his own balls. He pretends to talk to people but makes no contact. His eyes are covered by milky cataracts. He talks right through people’s faces and does not stop until he is out of breath. “A big zero,” he says, apparently studying the cards. “A big zero.” He picks them up off the carpet without playing. Now he is drinking juice. He undoes his pants, the buckle, snap the zipper, plays with his dick but nothing happens. He is getting older. Zips, snaps, buckles his pants and goes on drinking the juice. I notice that there is no music in his life, no radio, no nothing. He does not drink, he hardly eats anything. I see him in the cafe fighting with a bowl of soup, a few spoonfuls. He says, “Please, that’s dinner.” My life is more interesting than his. I can hear him but he can’t hear me. Other than that I suppose there isn’t much difference. I sit on the carpet and shuffle the cards, open and close the refrigerator, play with myself, eat dinner at the cafe. He lives on the top floor. There is nothing for him but bird’s feed and rain. He is a bare skull. I am somewhere inside the body. Under me there is a vacancy. There is no one down there listening.

The simplest magic trick—the one I know mainly because two years ago I became an uncle and thought I needed to know it—is the French Drop. You have seen the French Drop. It’s palming a coin in one hand while pretending to grab it with the other. A piece of slight of hand. It works when a person misdirects the viewer (the two-year-old niece, say) but making a big show of looking at the empty hand. And then the palmed coin is pulled from behind the niece’s ear.

Misdirection happens in a piece of writing, too. An unreliable narrator misdirects the reader. The difference being, a good sleight of hand artist doesn’t want the viewer to see that the coin is palmed in his hand. A good writer tries to let the reader see a tiny bit of the coin peak out from under his fingers. A good writer wants to reader to slowly realize that the first person narrator is telling a story about someone else when in fact the story is really about him.

“The Man Upstairs” is a fine little piece of misdirection. There are sneaking view of the coin: can a downstairs neighbor hear the sound of a man tickling his own balls? How thin are the floors in this place? If they are so thin you can hear a man tickle his own balls, how can the floors actually hold up the weight of a man? And the narrator can hear the man upstairs, but can’t be heard?

In the end, the piece abandons misdirection, of course. Bernstein practically throws the coin at us. But I don’t think he fails the piece. Instead, like a good poet, he abandons the coin entirely, has pulled it out from behind our ears, and when we look up, we notice that he has somehow removed us from the room in which we were watching the trick and deposited us in the cold, claustrophobic trunk of a stranger’s car. And we are hurtling toward a cliff.

The Tragic Pornographic: On Say You’re One of Them

by Roxane Gay


Roughly defined, the ancient Greek concept of métis, or cunning intelligence, is how we use subversive strategies to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Métis is about using our perceived weaknesses to our advantage and turning our opponent’s strength(s) against them.


As I read Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan I thought of métis and the way many writers of color use it to succeed in publishing.  I understand why we do it. It’s an occupational hazard.

From time to time, I write about Haiti, where my family is from. The reality is that things over there are that bad. The best way to tell those difficult stories is just to write them plainly and hope for the best. Certainly, there are more pleasant stories but no one wants to read about me sitting on the white sand beaches eating delicious cubes of grilled pork and fresh fruit, listening to the most amazing music in the world.  People want to read about persecution and death squads dragging fathers out in the middle of the night and kidnappings and mothers who feed their hungry children mud pies. I write those stories and try in some small way to do it well and in ways that are more authentic than exploitative. I also write those stories knowing they are what people want and expect to read about Haiti. It’s pretty untenable but as I mature as a writer I am also trying to write Haiti differently and to challenge what people expect in fiction about the third world. Time will tell how well I succeed at that.

While it’s great that Oprah chose a short story collection for her current book club selection, I find the choice of Say You’re One of Them very problematic. As an aside, I wonder what Binyavanga Wainaina, who wrote the great essay How to Write About Africa in Granta 92, would say about the book.

Are the five stories in Akpan’s collection well-written? I suppose.


When I consider these stories critically, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the book is doing so well for two reasons that have nothing to do with great writing: (1) people are more interested in the writer’s story than his writing what with him being a priest and all, and  (2) we are naturally inclined to elevate to greatness those stories borne of great tragedy, those stories grounded in such horrifying circumstances that we focus more on the pain and sorrow of those circumstances than the manner in which they are conveyed.

I think Akpan was very cunning and intelligent in the writing of this collection. I think he knew how to play on American sensitivities to the plight and blight of Africa and so he wrote this book about death and child soldiers and girl prostitutes and other inconceivable sufferings. In reading this book, we’re not focusing on the words. All we can see is the tragedy. All we want are the pornographic descriptions of poverty and impossible choices and war torn lands.  The stories Akpan tells are true but they are not the only stories that could be told about Africa. We don’t want to read the other stories–no, we want Africa laid bare and wet, her legs spread, open for us to see the most grotesque parts of her. Akpan is smart enough to give us exactly what we want.

At the front of the book are countless blurbs from all manner of literary luminaria. As I read the blurbs, I wondered if the admirers actually read the book or if they found a random compliment generator and threw the words “war” and “Africa” in at appropriate junctures. I was also struck by the ecstatic, almost frantic tone of the blurbs, as if this book offers some kind of transcendental experience. Then, I started reading the book and I had a really hard time getting into it. I felt that perhaps I was somehow broken.

Great writers have long shown that you can write about horrific experiences and troubled places and create literature that moves beyond the pornographic. (Jose Saramago’s Blindness comes to mind.) There is so much brilliant writing about Africa that does not essentialize that very complex continent. (We could start with Chinua Achebe.) Unfortunately, Say You’re One of Them is a book that does not rise above itself. It is a manipulative kind of book that puts readers in a really uncomfortable position. If you say you don’t like this sort of book, you’re often branded as ignorant or culturally myopic or even racist. Another very untenable situation.

I hated this book and everything it represents. The stories are mediocre and in desperate need of an editor and to my mind, Akpan is more concerned with the tragic pornographic than telling truly great stories.  It drives me a little crazy that I seem to be the only person who feels this way but that’s okay too.

If reading my diatribe hasn’t discouraged you, I have a copy to give away. If you’re interested, say so in the comments and I’ll pick a winner, at random, at the end of the day.

Has anyone else read the book yet?

Shoplifting from American Apparel: A Review

by Jimmy Chen

Getting a head in life

Getting a head in life

In writing about Shoplifting from American Apparel, I will try very hard not to say if it’s good or bad. I will also not align myself as a fan or dissenter of Tao Lin, or participate in the murky controversies over what people think about him — controversies which both propel his fame while compromising it. That kind of discourse is inflated and not interesting to me. I will admit I’m ambivalent about writing a review of this book, as it already has had its ample share ofattention — I just wanted to write about some formal things I thought about while reading the book. (I am writing this review without the book in hand, and cannot check facts, and I read the book briskly, so this may be a compromised account.)


1. Shoplifting

The political allusions or implications of shoplifting from a “progressive” corporation are provocative, but will not be examined here. For me, the shoplifting scene reminded me of The Stranger where the guy shoots the Arab on the beach, for both Lin and Camus describe their protagonist’s actions without any judgment. Lin does not judge or glorify Sam, so it becomes the reader’s vague burden. This is Crime and Punishment Lite: no guilt, and the only consequence is a brief visit to jail. Of course, such aesthetic stoicism may in itself be an author’s commentary on “moral relativity,” and if so, fine. It just really struck me how coldly Lin described the scene.

2. Dialog

Lin culled actual Gchats with his friends, incorporating them in the book. It is notable how he imposed the traditional dialog onto these Gchats, as if by masquerading them with double quotes would either veil or exploit this conceit. If the measure of a good writer is the ever difficult “realistic dialog,” what if such realism is really, well, real? Luis and Sam often interrupt one another, or ignore the other’s questions, or answer them a line too late — incongruencies which mirror real speech. Gaddis, in JR, without the aid of instant messaging, transcribed what he overheard at the office to capture true vernacular; and Director Robert Altman mics up all his off-camera actors for ad libbed material, so the territory is not shockingly new — it’s just that Lin is perhaps more cunning and self-reflexive about it.

3. Artifice

An earlier “draft,” in published form, of the conversation between Luis and Sam can be found atMississippi review. (It may be instructive to compare the two.) One notices that Tao often toggles between names of characters, either subtracting real names to protect the innocent, or adding culturally notable names to fit whatever postmodern or metafictional conceit. He no doubt uses Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” function, an application which even makes an appearance in the book. At one point, Sam asks Luis if there’s a MS Word function to change a manuscript into present tense. Philip Roth has been the subject of Tao’s sarcasm probably because, as a writer so keen on realism, the former’s protagonists are often writers, and there is a slight tinge of self-deprecation with Sam’s vocation.

4. Race

In the jail scene, Lin designates everyone as either “Asian,” “Caucasian,” “Hispanic,” or “African American”– the catchwords of a sound liberal education; yet such journalistic objectivity smells of  faint sarcasm, as if the author’s social obedience while describing such a politically symbolic scene had fingers pointed at those who would have been horrified had he used whiteblack, or the all-encompassing yet never accurate Mexican. We tend describe what is relevant to us. In line at a roller coaster it’s how tall you are. In a hot tub it’s if you have open sores. And in jail it’s what race you are, because deep down inside that’s what matters to us. One’s race is either currency or liability. Lin’s commentary is not race, or even racism, but our denial of the latter.

5. Hedonism

Hedonism, for me, is “visceral existentialism,” where the body encounters a meaningless world. I felt that the characters were always reaching for something: food, drinks, phones, laptops, etc., all the while doing so lethargically. If the minimalism of Lin’s writing is a shortcut to zen, then what about all the consumerist clutter? (One character laments that she does not even have Gmail.) Is all this simply texture within “realism,” or do these objects act as surrogate somethings? Sam employs just as much volition towards iced-coffee as he does his friends, as everything is equal and not subject to judgment. Is this mild misanthropy or zen epiphany? And yet, the most consistent and assertive thing in Lin’s writing is veganism — so in a way, the reader, who cannot judge Sam can in turn be judged by Lin. Or am I just paranoid?

6. Characters

The head count of characters per number of pages is many. Most of them felt interchangeable, like they are all casual friends with varying degrees of closeness to Sam. Pynchon and Gaddis use excessive numbers of characters as a formal device to confuse the reader, and I’m not sure if Lin is doing something similar—to convey the transience of sentiment—or if it’s simply a technical shortcoming in the book. I found myself skipping over the names because they felt like place holders for either “friend” and “girl Sam likes.” Lin may be the “hardest working lazy writer,” whose work is so bare one wonders if he even tried. Of course I’m just saying that; I know he worked furiously on this book and edited it way down.

7. Generation

I don’t think Lin is the voice of this (I’m 33 and have difficultly using “our”) generation. The book reminded me a lot of Hemingway, where people just hang out and go from one thing to another. In a reading last night, during the Q&A, a middle-aged man asked Tao why his characters were so “vapid,” to which Tao mumbled “[very long pause] Um, the main guy is me.” I don’t think his characters are vapid. The last scene in the park is so subtle you’ll almost miss it. Audrey wants to move to NYC and Sam plays with his cell phone. Lin honors the reading experience, faithful enough in the reader to feel the terror of opening one’s cell phone then closing it, for no reason other than to stall for time, to make a moment last. The only thing Lin does is describe a world, not impose feelings. The reader, in turn, becomes the god of the book. Inside, people play acoustic guitar, perfect timing on Tao’s part for a scratchy amateur soundtrack. Love doesn’t always work out, but life, it seems, eventually will. I guess that’s what “ultimately life-affirming” means.


Sean Lovelace Is the Server Working Now

by Adam Robinson

lovelaceI think Sean Lovelace’s blog is hilarious and always spot on. His writing there makes me not hate runners as much. Like whenhe did the airforce marathon, I thought that was a fascinating and rugged bit of literary essay.

I also think he thinks that how a thing is said matters more than what that said thing is. That’s a smart rule, a top ten rule, one that can’t be made too elastic. I mean, really, I don’t know him at all so there’s not much reason for me to care about his running habits, impressive though they are, or his disc golf hobby, whatever that is, or how much he likes hot dogs and thinks they are the greatest food on the planteen. But since, blogwise, he often opts to invent a phrase like “hang something all oyster” rather than to further explain a point that is (maybe) clear enough or (maybe) less valuable than the vim of the saying or (maybe) whatever — since that — then I’m piqued and I have a reason to care about all the else, the running and deer hunting and whatever hippy hobby he has.

He can’t, thank heavens, go a blog-sentence without ending awonk. A paragraph like this gives the reader a lot of credit and gives him the opportunity to use language like paint:

. . . I ate my pre-race meal, a mixture of liquids and gels and potato chips and solvents and Near Beer and oil additives. My body felt like a Global Hawk. My stomach did the cloud-cover, the sandstorm. I then descended into the arms of Morpheus.

That excerpt starts with lucid detail then crashes another party. This is the reading eye I brought to his chapbook, How Some People Like Their Eggs, fresh from the Rose Metal Press skillet. How does it measure up?

First of all — the book is a winner. It won the chapbook contest and deservedly so, but besides that, it’s a beautiful artifact. The typesetting is impeccable, the design is striking, and the construction is solid. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that holding this book instills a sense that this is what a chapbook is meant to be. The production quality exemplifies the value of a chapbook, distinct from a ‘zine or something full-length; this justifies the medium.

But how does Lovelace’s writing here match up to what he does on his blog? Does he capture the same tone, or do these ten more deliberate works of flash fiction lose something in their full flesh? Do they gain something in their development? It does seem clear that these pieces are more “worked” than the joyous blather at his blog, and sometimes I miss those frenetic connections that he makes. But they aren’t absent entirely, just smoothed out and tucked in. Like, here’s something interesting in the first paragraph of the first story, “The meteorite hit a woman with hair wrapped high like a hornet’s nest, in the left thigh.” I think there is a misleading structure to that sentence. By first attending to the hairdo, he de-prioritizes the  subject that’s really at issue; a person hit by a space chunk is more interesting than her hair. The story, after all, is called “Meteorite,” but he subverts that and focuses on the woman, and in this way, the story becomes deeply human.

There are some more obvious jokes in “Meteorite,” too, like “a restaurant that serves college kids, and very bad food” or defining leukemia as “a disease wherein the white blood cells run amuck and drink too much beer. . . .” He pulls off a trademark simile such as, “walking, like two paper cups blown across a grassy courtyard” and “tall beers, bubbles rising like glass elevators,” but these are more reserved than “sleep like a machinery” which he wrote at his blog. By reserved I mean “more sensible,” but not necessarily better. No, that depends first on the story. Of course, this particular story is about cancer, therefore serious, therefore not joyful blather. Rather it’s a charted narrative that ends:

“Two years later I spent my spring break in a small Florida town where you could simply pitch your tent on the beach and lift sand dollars off the ocean bottom like lost frisbees and see so many stars at night it was stupid.”

To achieve that sublime tenor with a colloquialism isn’t easy. Not unless you’re good.

When I think about it that way, I find it remarkable how much technique he is able to carry over from the lunacy of his blog. This comparison ought to be a case-study in how a blog works for a serious writer; how easily he moves away from the tomfoolery of clicking “Publish” in WordPress for the nobler duty to a story, how he can select from a better pool of metaphors than “run like a friend’s closet” in something that appears between two covers. And then, what’s really cool, is getting those devices honed and still including nachos and frisbees and a zinger like “two sorority girls stroll by looking absolutely themselves.” And all this just appears in the first story. There are nine more, and my favorite is “I Love Bocce.” It made me laugh the hardest.