Lucky Alan And Other Stories

By Jonathan Lethem

(Doubleday, $24.95, 176 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Lethem is one of our best and best-selling contemporary writers of novels, short stories and essays. His nine novels include Dissident Gardens, Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn (1999) which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.  In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant.”  He has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, which has called him “something of a hipster celebrity.” He has also been dubbed a “genre bender,” as shown by his mastery of detective fiction, science fiction and autobiographical books. Lethem has said that his genre-mixing was likely influenced by his artist father’s work, which, he said, “”always combined observed and imagined reality on the same canvas, very naturally, very un-self-consciously.”

What is this book about?

Lucky Alan is Lethem’s latest collection of stories, whose plots are typically diverse: a father breaks down at Seaworld in “Pending Vegan”; a foundling child is rescued during a blizzard; a political prisoner in New York City is placed in a hole in the street; old time comic book characters are trapped on a desert island; and the title story is the tale of an actor and a famous theatre director. Some of these stories are straightforward; others surreal. All nine stories are beautifully written examinations of the weirdness of life.

Why you’ll like it:

Let’s let Lethem talk about his work, which will help you decide whether you’d like to read his latest book.

In an interview with Armchair/Shotgun in 2009, Lethem said: “I’m writing short stories right now, that’s what I do between novels, and I love them. I’m very devoted to it. You know, it’s funny. There seems to be some sort of law that you only get to be celebrated for one or the other. And then a couple of people will break it. Updike did. They didn’t review his story collections by saying, “Well, these are nice, but he’s a novelist.” Or review his novels by saying, “Well, too bad he can’t do the longer stuff.” Other people tend to get patronized on one end or the other—and I’ll take it. I have a very happy life as a novelist. But the story collections I’ve published are tremendously important to me. And many of the uncollected stories—or yet-to-be-collected stories—are among my proudest writings. They’re very closely allied, obviously, to novel writing. But also very distinct, and, you know, there’s no need to choose.”

Earlier this year he told Salon: “What’s great about short stories is the opportunity to play at reinvention; all those new departures, all those new landings to try to stick. It makes me happy to think of the book as a window into the last decade’s worth of tiny revolutions and self-overthrowings, and as a laboratory for what I might still become as a writer. For instance “Lucky Alan” was the last thing I wrote before starting “Chronic City,” and it looks to me like I was testing my confidence for that milieu and tone.”

He went on to tell Salon: “I’m haunted, yes, all the time, and increasingly, by the kinds of writer I’ll never get to turn out to have been. I’ve been digging in my own buried archives recently and discovered bunches of notebooks with jottings for stories and novels I never got around to writing (as well as jottings indicating some of those I did — I was amazed to find that I’d basically already conceived the intention to write The “Fortress of Solitude,” my sixth novel, when I was 19). Crime novels, autobiographical novels about parts of my life untouched by the autobiographical novels I’ve actually managed, surrealist stories, plays even! Every one of those notes feels alive to me, waiting to be picked up and realized. Probably none of them ever will be.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “In Lucky Alan…Lethem’s considerable strengths are on display…Lethem works in an interesting literary space between realism and absurdism, modernism and postmodernism, satire and a particular brand of DeLillo-inspired darkness…His talent is large and, as these stories demonstrate, his eye as sharp as ever.

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “These nine stories by a leading American writer almost all bend away from realism, and one goes well into fantasy, while offering choice prose and insights. Lethem has a rubbery Gumby brain that bounces among genres, elements of pop culture and everyday abnormalities. “Their Back Pages” tells of a comic-book plane crash that maroons on an island 13 characters (such as the armless King Phnudge and the clown Large Silly). Their adventure fluidly, delightfully mixes human and cartoon elements, along with a hint of something malign. In “Procedure in Plain Air,” which more than nods to Donald Barthelme, a bound man is casually and without explanation placed alive in a hole in a Manhattan street, and a passerby is enlisted to watch over him. The title character of “The Porn Critic” has a certain cachet among his peers, in part by managing a sex-toy shop and reviewing its adult films, but his simple romantic ambitions are foiled when the lady in question sees the piles of XXX DVDs in his flat. “Traveler Home” starts as fragments, like aides-mémoire for a larger work, then blossoms into a modern Grimm tale. “The King of Sentences” tells of two sentence-loving, unpublished writers hunting the reclusive man of the title when they aren’t concocting lines like, “I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring.” One story concerns the estrangement between the narrator and his blog, where “gulls have skeletonized the corpse in the entranceway,” among other things. It’s as far out there as jazz might be to a Beatles fan. At the other end of the scale is an almost conventional piece about a family outing to SeaWorld that is colored by the father’s being weaned from the antidepressant Celexa. Lethem’s humor ranges from rueful to sly to “big silly,” and his careful, mostly unshowy writing has a gift for charming a reader into almost anything.”

Publishers Weekly says: “In Lethem’s collection, following the novel Dissident Gardens, the stories use absurdity, satire, or incongruity to contrast the quotidian. A bookstore clerk and his girlfriend obsess over the cadence and precision of language, stalking the reclusive writer they’ve deemed “The King of Sentences” (in the story of that name). In “Procedure in Plain Air,” the main character, sitting outside his favorite cafe, watches a work crew dig a hole in the street, then lower a bound and gagged man into the chasm. In “Porn Critic,” the lonesome Kromer reflects on his titular vocation, realizing his “special literacy was… positively toxic.” Unfortunately, the characters, with exquisitely improbable names like Sigismund Blondy, C. Phelps Northrup, and Invisible Luna, seldom surpass the concepts that formed them, and the ideas of the stories are more promising than the stories themselves. Although nearly every sentence captures Lethem’s sharp wit and copious imagination, reminding us that Lethem himself is perhaps the king of sentences after all, the sum of the parts rarely adds up. The most rewarding exception is “Pending Vegan,” which begins, “Paul Espeseth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at Sea World.” The story that follows fulfills this line’s prediction with all the intrigue, emotion, and blunt force of reality.”

In the Barnes & Noble Review, novelist Alexander Chee says: “. . . Lethem’s feeling for the contemporary moment appears at its best in the first and last stories, “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan,” and with their settings, we have the collection’s single recognizable arc, one that takes us from New York City to California, mirroring the writer’s life. “Lucky Alan” is something of a tribute to a vanishing New York, the story of an actor and the famous theater director, Sigismund Blondy, whom he befriends shortly after auditioning for him (Dianne Wiest makes a cameo). They run into each other at films in theaters in their Upper East Side neighborhood, and these repeated sightings become occasions for conversation. When Blondy fails to reappear as usual, the narrator, who by now has quit acting, pursues him — even calling him at home, an essential violation of this friendship’s unspoken terms. On this call, he learns Blondy has moved downtown but would like to see him. They make plans — momentous — when Blondy tells him he has a questionnaire he needs him to answer.

This leads to the unveiling of the titular Lucky Alan, and I won’t ruin the story by telling you how this happens. But in Blondy and his actor narrator, Lethem deftly skewers the sort of person who loves being obscure for the sake of being obscure — as if all of the fun in knowing him is in his being only partly understood. The story itself is not urgent somehow, strangely delicate in the way it is made out of obscure films and theatrical references, and the single biggest pleasure in it is the moment when Lucky Alan’s wife appears — and speaks a single, unforgettable line. She is the story’s moment of truth. The pretentiousness of the men in the story is suddenly revealed to be like the drifting smoke it was all along.

“. . . Lethem is at his best when he is the revolutionary, I think — and not the genre-reconciling statesman. When he drills down into the strangeness of contemporary life, the result is as striking as anything else he’s written. It’s a testament to this sort of exercise’s value — and makes you hope Lethem’s not finished playing around. California has many ironies left to offer him.”

When is it available?

Lucky for us, Lucky Alan is available for borrowing from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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