For its seemingly effortless whimsy and wit, go boldly forth and seek out this most enterprising compilation of disparate short stories. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s some kind of titularly Trekkie assembly required. The connections to Star Trek in Thomas P. Balázs’ down-to-earth debut collection Omicron Ceti III – named after a fictional planet in the episode “This Side of Paradise” — are restricted to the book’s title story in which a character is a fan of the show, and consumed with a need to count in threes. (To the therapist who asks about this obsession: “First, I don’t agree it’s an obsession. Second, I happened to like to number. Third, get off of my case.”) And the links also come into play as each of Balázs’ three sections is preceded by an epigraph from the TV episode, quotations which, if taken as an evolving whole, suggest a thematic reach, if not grasp, for an elusive paradise
Arranged as a triptych, arrayed into its three parts with three stories each, much of Omicron is for those who take their humor black. But, fine as that might be, it doesn’t smack of unrelenting sardonic drollery, cover-to-cover. Balázs, who has been described as an implausible lovechild of Vonnegut, Nabokov, and Telly Savalas, gets a little hazy with some inconsistency and sketchiness here and there, but he spices things up with some variety while he lights out for new territories, re-setting the subject, mood, narrative, and voice. In addition, what might be initially unpalatable or off-putting often not only becomes accessible with Balázs’ craftsmanship and imagination, it often takes on a humanity and beguilement you may have thought just wasn’t there.
And so a bit of the scatological infringes on the gastronomical in “The Gourmand,” in which we follow the epicurean evolution of an adventurous young American investment banker combining business with pleasure as a world-traveling “seeker of esoteric flavors and obscure textures.” Even if that means chowing down on such entrees as calf’s brains in black butter, grilled octopus, boiled dog, purple snake blood, dry-roasted rat, and so much more. Still, the story is as much food for thought as it is a Fear Factor ep, and Balázs fleshes out his character as a well-rounded, conscientious figure who, concerned with the future, companionship, and more meaning in life, finds himself at that proverbial fork in the roadfood: “Man cannot live on pigeon alone.” But what if its skin is “sprinkled with black truffle oil and sea salt, turned to a golden crisp, only slightly tarnished by carbon like an old doubloon rescued from the fire?” Furthermore, should he return to the pound that puppy he had “adopted.”
Though more broadly or cartoonishly comic than darkly so, another standout story in Omicron Ceti III comes with “My Secret War,” as cloak-and-dagger maneuvers between a emergent homosexual high school student “caught between the Scylla of shame and the Charybdis of lust,” directs some surreptitious and mismanaged anger, unsorted sexuality, and identity issues at his English teacher outside a gay bar, becoming increasingly crusading and reckless.
And paranoid, Poe-lite style:
“Over the next few weeks, I conducted a carefully orchestrated plot to undermine the soul of my English teacher. It was a two-pronged attack consisting of anonymous calling cards meant to drive him into a state of fear and paranoia and a series of journal entries designed to prick his conscience.”
And about those journal entries: “I write long passage of feigned naiveté, meant to inspire in him an inward turn of the soul, so he may see himself for the great hypocrite that he was.”
Calling out hypocrites in her own inestimable fashion, Dinah — the crusty but clinging curmudgeon in “The Music Man” — practically lives on the phone calling people with not so much the gift of gab as the nuisance of the nag, and a phony suicide threat from time to time. More verbal and effective interpersonal communication – and a bigger dose of poignancy – accompanies the introspection and humor in “Niddah,” about a young Jewish girl trying to divert attention away from the fact that she is the first girl in her class to menstruate. “What if I set everyone off, some kind of domino effect?” she wonders. “First me, then Cindy, then Allison, then the twins, maybe even Mrs. Becker. We’ll all be bleeding at once, like some kind of menstrual chorus, and they’ll figure out I started it.” In the end, however, her classmates gather around her and offer support and ask questions. Not an accusatory, pointed finger in the whole bunch.
If Thomas P. Balázs doesn’t go where no writer has gone before, he’s proven to be, with the audacious and at times absurd Omicron Ceti III, an inspired and inventive writer resourceful enough to also draw on many diverse sources, cultural and pop-cultural. So we get references for Plato and his philosophy, to Middlemarch, “Dover Beach,” Derrida, Demille, Christina Rossetti, among others. And as often as not, you’ll turn to the next story and read about, say, a parallel paradise of classic early-nineties kitsch, obscure Corey Haim movies, overblown crack cocaine metaphors, and post-apocalyptic rollerblades.
Because, after all: “Man cannot live on pigeon alone.”