July 2010

Pauls Toutonghi


What He's Poised to Do: Stories by Ben Greenman

Sometimes a book is so inventive, so interesting and capable and creative, that you have to put it down, walk around, take a deep breath, have a beer, and think about things. The book can challenge your idea of what it means to be a fiction writer. And these books tend to make you a little mad; you grapple through them -- captivated but enlivened -- reminded that there are different ways of doing things, ways you hadn’t imagined.

So, when I finished Ben Greenman’s newest collection of stories, What He’s Poised to Do, I was a little drunk. I’d had three beers. It was a three-beer book. I’d stopped after “The Hunter and the Hunted,” and then again after “To Kill the Pink,” and finally after, “What We Believe But Cannot Praise.” One beer apiece, each of those stories.

It was 12:30 in the morning. And thus I did the only thing that I could imagine: I went down to the post office and used the automated postage machine to mail the book to someone I didn’t know, someone whose address I’d found on Whitepages.com -- someone who had the same name as one of the characters. Which would be an interesting tagline for the collection: A book so beautiful, you’ll feel mysteriously compelled to mail it to a stranger.

Part of this collection was originally published as Correspondences by Hotel St. George Press, a tiny, boutique publisher that does high-quality, low-press run editions. To Greenman and his publishers at Hotel St. George, the artifact was as important as the text. Parts of that edition folded out, accordion-style; the entire edition was a marvel of design. A limited number of the 250 copies are still available.

But the additional stories in What He’s Poised to Do expand and deepen the collection. As Greenman writes in the interview that’s included as end material in the Harper Perennial edition: “I started from the idea that I was writing stories about the disconnections between people -- about romantic frustration, about misunderstanding.” And this disconnection is at the heart of the new stories, especially “Barn,” a rumination on destroyed relationships and parenting that first appeared at FiveChapters.com. “Barn” has, at its center, a shocking act of violence that transforms the story -- casting a light both forwards and backwards, altering both the characters and the scope of the things that they have a right to say.

Greenman’s style is an eclectic mix of experimentation and straightforward American realism; he clearly owes a debt to the South American magical realists (particularly Borges and García Márquez), whose winking sensibilities don’t shirk engagement with the most sorrowful or difficult parts of life. You can be a little experimental, Greenman is saying, it’s no great sin. His work also reminds me a little -- in its blunt lyricism -- of Aleksandar Hemon. Or perhaps the early poems and fiction of Michael Ondaatje. Whatever the case, it is an antidote to the flat realism that dominated American fiction for so long, and now seems to be receding, having (hopefully) left, as its legacy, the best parts of its observant eye, and a certain simplicity of diction.

That is to say: Raymond Carver once bought a Mercedes in his bathrobe and slippers.

Supposedly, the short story is roaring back to life. Mainstream New York publishers are issuing more collections these days, and magazines like One Story live in the center of our intellectual American world (such as it is). And perhaps this is a good thing. As mobile technology provides us with so many different ways to stop reading, perhaps we need more collections -- like Greenman’s -- that remind us all of the great things that a book can do. But you’ve got to pick it up. And open it. And then put it down. But pick it up again. And open it. But keep the car keys nearby. And set aside money for postage.

What He’s Poised to Do: Stories by Ben Greenman
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0061987409
208 Pages