Ladies and Gentlemen

  • Adam Ross
  • Knopf
  • 256 pp.

Excellent characterizations mark a debut story collection from the author of last year’s acclaimed novel Mr. Peanut.

Reviewed by Phil Harvey

Ladies and Gentlemen, Adam Ross’s excellent new story collection, is filled with fresh themes and interesting ideas. Ross deals with young people surprisingly well, including his tale of a precocious 13-year-old boy in “Middleman.” A particularly unusual theme is the betrayal of men by other men. This is an explicit focus in “Futures” and “When in Rome,” and is hinted at in other stories.

These stories are smoothly rendered, easy to read, and usually engaging, characteristics I especially admire in an age of nonlinear stories whose plots I often struggle to unravel.

Ross actually packs two stories into “Futures,” the first story in this collection, and both work together successfully. The central narrative focuses on protagonist David Applelow as he undergoes a bizarre series of job interviews, leading to a satisfying “gotcha” ending. The other story concerns Applelow’s relationship with “wide-hipped narrow-chested” Marnie, and more importantly with Marnie’s son, Zack. Zack is a college sophomore who may or not may join the Air Force. Both the story lines are solid, and the outcomes quirky, though Zack’s behavior seems rendered to make a point rather than being fully motivated.

Indeed, Ross’s characters’ betrayals, casually revealed in surprise endings, seem designed to show us that any man-to-man camaraderie is hollow, always was. Those friendly attempts to build good relationships, one man or boy to another, that growing trust, will always be, always has been, false. When brother betrays brother in “When in Rome,” or Zack betrays his mentor in “Futures,” we are appalled at their indecency but don’t care about it as deeply as we should, in part because the author makes an unnecessary effort to be sure we get the point.

But good stories require no explanations, and the best story in this collection does especially well without them. “Middleman” is about 13-year old Jacob, who fantasizes about the older sister of his best friend. The boy is highly competent in his own world, performing in TV commercials, and he engineers a number of ways to spend time with the girl, first through his friendship with the brother, then by ingratiating himself with her family, later by helping her to break into the world of television ads. Family scenes around the dinner table are wonderfully funny as Dad bucks up the 13-year-visitor at the expense ― good naturedly ― of his own son. Mother miscommunicates hilariously with everyone, and Jacob watches every move of the girl of his dreams as she puts down Mom (“Mork calling Orson”) in a convivial and satisfying scene.

But the girl has a boyfriend ― and the attention Jacob lavishes on her risks his cherished friendship with her brother. We wonder if there’s another male-on-male betrayal shaping up, and this tension makes the ending ― a marvelously delicious, unearned and prolonged kiss ― all the more satisfying.

Ross is quite comfortable in the world of adolescents. In addition to the appealing youngsters in “Middleman,” he gives us a hip crowd in “The Suicide Room.” Four smooth-talking college students try to top each other telling grisly and obviously embellished tales. Will, the central character, has a running competition with classmate Johnny Manion to see who can be more daring and outrageous. Sensing an opportunity with his group of friends ― they are all a little stoned ― he suggests they break in to the dorm’s off-limits “suicide room” where a fellow student hanged herself a couple of years earlier. This requires one of them ― the self-appointed Will ― to edge around the outside of the building on a narrow ledge, nine stories above the ground, to enter the room through a window. Will succeeds, and they all breathe easy until Johnny Manion appears and Will decides to meet Manion’s continuing challenge by inching around the entire building on the ledge. The story is well told, the tension maintained. The author employs a distancing device at the end, which works, but then succumbs briefly to his tendency to overanalyze.

Somewhat less satisfying are two selections structured as stories within stories. Ross has no trouble with his building blocks; he moves easily from one story to the other. But the lead-in for “In the Basement” seems largely unrelated to the story of hypertalented, very compulsive Lisa, who is ultimately the focus of the tale. We sit with the narrator and with Carla, his wife, and observe the tensions between their friends Maria and Nicholas, who eventually tell us Lisa’s story. At the wedding of Lisa and her husband-to-be, Uzi Levi (he’s the embodiment of Lisa’s ideals), we learn that the marriage, in Nicolas’s view, feels like a horrible mistake. Watching the two families circle up for the hora ― “Lisa’s WASP contingent and Levi’s clan” ― was, says Nicholas, “like some bad comedy of intermarriage.” But the marriage endures. Some years later we learn that Lisa has bought a dog for her children, and when Nicholas and Maria visit Lisa and Uzi in their immaculate, ultramodern home in California (Viking range, sub-zero fridge, shower with jets from five angles), it is the dog ― in the cellar ― that provides the denouement. The story is compelling; it doesn’t need the lengthy introduction.

“The Rest of It” also depends on stories told by one of the characters. A university professor, Thane, unintentionally becomes the host for Donato, the building’s maintenance man, who drops by Thane’s office from time to time telling stories of drug smuggling, massacres, dog attacks and gun running. After an unrelated side trip with an attractive female student (their failure to connect feels unlikely and unsatisfying), and an even more unlikely subplot revealed through highly personal letters left inexplicably lying around in the open, Donato comes to Thane’s office with a story of Mafia murder that turns out to be verified on the evening news. Knowing from Donato more about the killer than he wants to, and torn about going to the police, Thane agonizes. He seeks, and gets, reassurance from his ex-wife, a lawyer, but his musings that close the story (“It would mean something, wouldn’t it?  To break from his character, his story”) don’t tell us very much and lack the potency of the endings of other stories in this collection.

The eponymous “Ladies and Gentlemen” is mostly musing, with good dialog added. There’s some fine back story here as protagonist Sara recalls some high points from her marriage and times she has mothered her son and husband. And she gives a powerful rendering of a not-yet-consummated affair. But the narrative tails off as Sara wonders ― intelligently, even eloquently ― about what she’ll do next and what that will mean. Too much meaning, not enough story.

These stories represent an important contribution from a new author. Ross’s debut novel, Mr. Peanut, was published only last year (to excellent reviews) and his reputation will be enhanced by this collection. I’d like to see him let his characters do more of what they are motivated naturally to do ― as established through Ross’s excellent characterizations ― without having them work, or muse, to make the author’s points. Then, I think, Ross’s place as an important new American writer would be assured.

Phil Harveys short stories have appeared in 13 publications.

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