It's been 14 years since Donald Antrim published his last fiction work, The Verificationist, a novel about a group of psychoanalysts gathered together for a late-night pancake supper. In the intervening years, he published a memoir (The Afterlife, a Book Critics Circle Award finalist) and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2013; Antrim has now published his first collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air. Unlike his novels, which tend toward the bizarre, weird and surrealistic, his stories are quiet and sedate, even hermetic.
All seven pieces were previously printed in the New Yorker, and like another favorite author of that magazine, John Updike, Antrim deals with the domestic: couples, husbands and wives, fidelity (or not) and personal failings. Many of his characters use drugs (Ativan, Valium), drink a lot (one story is called "Another Manhattan"), have contemplated or attempted suicide or are self-conscious to a fault. The stories can feel a bit cramped and confined, but thanks to Antrim's prose, they sparkle and gleam with subtle insights and revelations.
The collection's first story takes a slightly different emotional tack than the rest: "An Actor Prepares" is hilarious, witty, sarcastic and a lot of fun. Reginald Barry teaches speech and drama at a small, upscale college. He's directing A Midsummer Night's Dream to commemorate the college's founding, and "I decided to serve up some ham myself, as Lysander." Reg likes being around the students, a bunch of "oversexed dope addicts" (he enjoys smoking with them). He likes looking at the girls in their costumes, G-strings and pasties. Then all hell breaks loose when a flash flood hits.
"Pond, with Mud" is the secret name for Patrick Rouse's "encrypted journal." A poet manqué, he's constantly scribbling down lines and thoughts in his journals. A man of ritual, he always carries his journal just so. Trying to impress his fiancée, he takes her son, Gregory, to the zoo, only they don't make it that far. Patrick ends up drinking in a bar, child in tow.
In the title story, Billy French aimlessly drives his Mercedes in the Virginia mountains until a rainstorm washes him and his car down a hill. Billy's girlfriend, a painter, once told him she was "searching for something that isn't quite there." Suicidal Billy isn't quite there, either.
In polished prose that's analytical, sharp and concise, Antrim reveals the weaknesses in these fragile characters, burdened with even the simplest decisions they're unable to make. Still, he manages to inspire sympathy for his misfits, who can undoubtedly use it. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher
Shelf Talker: Novelist Donald Antrim plumbs the emotional depths of his troubled characters in these seven domestic tales.