Picks and Pans Review: All You Can Eat

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Robin Hemley

Contemporary, very weird and often very funny in a grim way, the 13 short stories in this collection dance around the edges of reality, occasionally poking their heads in to see how things are going. Hemley, 30, was born in New York City and now teaches creative writing and literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He obviously has spent enough time in the Midwest to write comfortably about such phenomena as Wrigley Field in Chicago and the steel mills of Gary, Ind. His efficiently sketched characters often seem vaguely frightened or chronically puzzled. That goes even for the ones who think they've got the system down pat, such as the cabbie who says, "We must not waste our time with unimportant things. In my room, I have a list of unimportant things that is taped to my wall. I already have over 1,500 things on the list and I have memorized them all. Learning what to ignore has made me perceptive." Those who aren't puzzled—and a lot who are—act like professional cynics. The narrator of the title story, set at an all-you-can-eat pancake social, muses about his wife, "There are some people who aren't meant to be happy, and I'm one of them. I don't like happy people. Sarah is completely the opposite. Her favorite word is tickle." A Chicago elevated train conductor, frustrated with the ditzy performance artist he's having a peculiar sort of affair with, asks her, "What's going to make you happy? Sacrificing a beefalo? A vat of putrefying squirrels?" One man walking to work sees a succession of people putting bowling balls on their front steps and tries to track down the mystery, wondering at one point whether this is an odd new form of recycling. "I'd like to know what you're doing," he asks a man who is gathering the balls and putting them in a truck, "and how much it costs to have it done. I might be interested." In another story, two boys place some mice in a toy town and set it on fire. In "Digging a Hole," a man digs in his ex-wife's backyard, trying, in a piteously indirect way, to find a way of understanding the death of his 3-year-old son. Hemley rarely lets the surrealism pull him on to tangents, and he usually makes every word count. It would be hard to find a better description of these stories than the title of a small press (Wordbeat) anthology in which one of them previously appeared: Stories About How Things Fall Apart and What's Left When They Do. (Atlantic Monthly, paper, $7.95)

From Our Partners