Picks and Pans Review: Mourner at the Door

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gordon Lish

It's just as well that Lish has published such well-received novels as Dear Mr. Capote and Peru because anybody judging just from this collection of short stories might be inclined to speculate: Does his reputation derive from his talent or from the fact that—as an editor at Knopf and former fiction editor at Esquire—he has become such a literary power broker that people are afraid to offend him even when his writing is so eminently unworthy of publication as this? There are 27 stories (many merely snippets) in this 162-page book. One is about vomit, another about constipation, another about masturbation. Now if they were enlightening or entertaining stories about vomit, constipation or masturbation, that would be one thing. These, however, are just as inane and repetitive as the rest of the book. Here is a typical passage from another story, "Spell Bereavement": "My mother gets back on and says, 'The man only wanted the best for his family.' My mother says, 'The man's every waking thought was for no one but his family.' My mother says, 'The man could never do enough for his family.' My mother says, 'The man never wanted one thing for anyone but his family.' My mother says, 'His family's happiness, this alone is what made the man happy.' " Then there's the story that's an endless stream of clichés, like something from a mediocre college humor magazine, or the one that's mainly a list of women's names. Lish's level of respect for his audience is suggested by "Fish Story": "He'll bite on any fool thing, your silly blowfish will. But so, for that matter, will your friendly reader—hook, line and sinker." There are also, of course, those creatures who will spit out the hook and jump out of the water, seeming to say, "You've got to be kidding, pal." (Viking, $16.95)

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