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Book Review: Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross

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If the seven stories collected in Adam Ross’s Ladies and Gentlemen don’t seem to have quite the same postmodern complexity of his debut novel, Mr. Peanut, the darkness of their themes is certainly in keeping with its moral vision. Readers who enjoyed getting lost in the labyrinthine narrative strains of Mr. Peanut, are liable to be disappointed by these stories more reminiscent of O. Henry in their plotting. Although never so saccharine in theme, some are the kinds of stories where the hero sells his cherished watch to buy his wife a set of fancy combs for her luxurious hair which she has had cut and sold to buy him a chain for his watch. All are more or less traditionally told tales—straight forward, if manipulative.

On the other hand, the world described in these stories is much the same as the world described in the novel. It is a world filled with self absorbed people as equally ripe for betrayal as to betray. It is a world where you can’t trust those who are closest to you. A middle aged wife flies off to have an affair with an old flame. Brothers replay the archetypal Cain and Abel story. An infatuated young boy is used by his friend’s older sister. In some stories the betrayal is inevitable; in some it is a surprise, and in some it is left unresolved—but in story after story it hovers over the narrative.

“Futures” is the story of an out of work, middle aged theater manager who begins a series of interviews for an undefined job with a very peculiar company. Seduced by his fantasies about the pretty young interviewer as well as his own economic situation, he sets himself up to be victimized. In “The Rest of It” a lonely college instructor is befriended by one of the college’s handy men who tells him exciting stories supposedly from his past life. When he is told about a mob hit man on the run currently holed up with the handy man, he is faced with a dilemma. Is the story true? What should he do about it?

In “The Suicide Room” two couples are sitting around a college dorm room smoking pot and telling horror stories about violent deaths they may or may not have seen. When one of the boys sets off on a dangerous stunt, the scene is set for what may or may not be an ironic surprise ending. “Middleman” is the story of an adolescent boy’s crush on an older girl who suddenly finds herself interested in him when she learns he is a professional actor. “In the Basement” deals with two married couples whose relationships are something less than ideal. One couple tells the other a story about an old friend, a perfect young woman who should have had a remarkable life but never fulfilled her promise, as though her failure will somehow make their own situations better.

Ross is an engaging story teller. He creates characters that come alive on the page. They may be flawed losers. They may be deceiving themselves. They are never boring. He grabs your attention from the start and keeps the story moving towards what seems to be its inevitable climax. You may not always find that climax as satisfactory as you’d like. An ending or two may strike a discordant chord, as though you’ve been led down the proverbial garden path. That, after all, is the way with surprise endings—you have in effect been led down that path. Read the stories and enjoy the walk.

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About Jack Goodstein