(This review references both the audio edition and the unabridged text edition.)
The Coen Brothers have long appeared masters of quirky American voices. Jewish, rednecks, hitmen, insurance salesmen, FBI officials – they’ve created a gaggle of characters. But there is the question of whether they’re better directors than writers, and get lucky with so many talented casts. John Goodman and William H. Macy can make most dialogue work.
Enter this collection of short stories by Ethan Coen. I was fortunate enough to get both the unabridged text and the abridged audio production, and happily compared how his prose read against how the actors performed.
First, the performers. Good Lord, what talent. John Turturro delivers two stories with dynamic aplomb. John Goodman is hilarious as the oversexed interloper and gossip in “It Is an Ancient Mariner.” Ben Stiller is wonderfully uncomfortable and regretful in”I Killed Phil Shapiro.” Steve Buscemi is a top-shelf scumbag for”Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland,” then turns around and becomes a farcical pulp detective for “A Fever in the Blood.” These short stories could all be terrible and would still be worth listening to just for the voices the actors draw from them.
I read the text first, to test my inner ear against the actors’ external ones. “It Is an Ancient Mariner” was where it first kicked, and where Coen shows some of his boldest prose moves. It’s written as a conversation with someone sitting down to a lunch counter, but we only ever hear the gossip’s side. He pauses for imagined reactions that grow increasingly scene-breaking, including halfway through in assigning a name to the unknown chatter, destroying the illusion that we’re talking to him. Yet the destruction isn’t off-putting; it’s funny. The whole story is brash in its games with how gossips speak, and how lurid the narrator will get. It soon results in pushing just how much you’d swallow for this conceit, rendering humor whether you decide it’s ridiculous or continue to suspend your disbelief.
That story is lurid, too. Coen compares sex with Marcia Ziegler to having your penis stuck in a paint mixer, and goes more absurd from there. In that sense, it’s a microcosm for how the entire collection handles rough material. Coen is comfortable writing orgasms and murders in almost grotesquely silly fashions. He’s also unafraid to write bigoted, homophobic characters who are so unrelentingly ignorant that some audience members will probably condemn the author. It’s a shame if they do. In the eponymous “Gates of Eden,” a sexist and self-indulgent detective enters getting lucky but exits soiling himself and with a butt covered in bee stings. In “Cosa Minapolidan” we see homophobia spun into a vengeful gang haggling over a corpse that may or may not have been gay when alive. Their problems, their morals, their toughness and their grit all exist in the same plane of ridicule.
Detectives, gangsters and inmates color many ofthe stories as emerging from the pulp traditional, either parodying it or paying some scatological tributes. There are rarer stories that fixate on the profound, like “A Morty Story,” about a boy being raised as a Jewish fundamentalist. His parents, religious instructors, orthodontist and teachers all seem to be wrangling him towards a cultural identity he doesn’t understand, and that may no longer exist the way they think it does. The certain dragging people towards uncertainty might serve as the theme of the collection – if you include all the cases of unduly convinced people self-destructing or being reduced to silliness. It’s a theme worth exploring, as are most of the stories within whichever version you decide to pick up.
John Wiswell is the author of The Bathroom Monologues, which are a long-running experiment in flash fiction, list fiction, monologues, dialogues, essays and other prose composed entirely while he’s up and away from the computer for a short time. They began when he took bathroom breaks from studying in college.
John’s work has appeared at Flash Fiction Online, Weird Tales, 10Flash, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Every Day Fiction, BURST, Alienskin Magazine, Short.Story-ME, Tweet the Meat and Thaumatrope. In 2009 he was nominated for Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web for “Rorschark Attack.” In 2010 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for “Sologamous.”
Find him at:
-Twitter, at http://twitter.com/Wiswell
-Facebook, at John Wiswell