Picks and Pans Review: Hearing from Wayne

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Bill Franzen

Among the substantial virtues of this collection of funny, pointed short stories is Franzen's uncommonly sensible attitude toward small towns and small-town Americans. He does not seem to believe that everyone who manages to live outside New York, Los Angeles and Chicago is a weed in the garden of life, nor does he act as if merely living where there are lots of trees bestows a state of grace. The guy in "37 Years" who has just learned he has only 37 years to live, for instance, is smart enough to realize that for a man in his position, "There'll be no more reading Stephen King's Cujo and then going to the movie Cujo two months later. See him start picking one or the other—no more of this 'both' stuff." On the other hand, he is so depressed that when he goes down to his basement bar to think, he doesn't even turn on the beer sign. There's none of this idyllic, bucolic family stuff either. When in "Mom and Pop Biz" the narrator's parents sell their live-bait shop and start a mom-and-pop magazine, they reject his first submission, an article titled "Retired? Sure—But Busier Than All Get Out" ("It gets a great big NO from me," writes Dad). Or consider the father in "Something the Matter With Dad," who is so stricken when his wife moves out on him that he just lies around in his pajamas watching his videotape collection of Robert Mitchum movies. Franzen, 36, was born in Minneapolis and has a touch of Garrison Keillor about him, though Franzen's writing in this first collection is sent up just a little higher (somewhat too high and too glib on occasion). He also creates not only laugh lines but a slightly disturbing tone—his characters have enough sense not to take themselves too seriously, but they tend to overdo it a bit. It's one thing to be able to laugh at yourself, another to start having trouble remembering where the jokes end and the actualities of life begin again. The protagonist of "What the Twister Did," for example, profits from the damage wrought by a tornado to fabricate and sell such curiosities as a half a bowling ball with a tire pump lodged in the thumb hole, pretending they are the happenstance products of nature's rampage. Soon, however, he starts having trouble when it comes to remembering what's a fabrication and what's real. "I'm beginning to wonder now," he says, "if I'll ever again see anything the way I used to." (Knopf, $15.95)

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