Jonathan Lethem's new collection of stories is a feast for his fans and the perfect introduction for new listeners-- a smorgasbord of fantastic, amusing, poignant tales written in a dizzying variety of styles. Lethem is a trailblazer fo a new kind of literary fiction, sampling high and low culture to create fictional worlds that are utterly original. Longtime fans will recognize echoes of Lethem's novels in all these pieces--narrators who can't stop babbling, hapless detectives, people with unusual powers that do them no good, hot-blooded academics, the keen loss of love, clever repartee masking desperation, stumbling romances, and the obligations of friendship.
Sparkling with off-beat humor and subtle insights that have made Lethem one of today's most highly praised writers, the stories in MEN AND CARTOONS will delight Lethem's legion of fans and appeal to a host of new listeners.
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Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Award. He is the author of two short story collections and the editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Granta and Harper’s. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
I first met the kid known as the Vision at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 gymnasium, fifth grade. That's what passed for physical education in 1974: a giant rubbery ball, faded red and pebbled like a bath mat, more bowled than pitched in the direction of home plate. A better kick got the ball aloft, and a fly was nearly uncatchable--after the outfielder stepped aside, as he or she invariably did, nearly anything in the air was a home run. Everyone fell down, there'd be a kid on his ass at each base as you went past. Alternately, a mistimed kick scudded back idiotically to the pitcher, and you were thrown out at first.
The Vision booted a double. His real name was Adam Cressner, but he believed himself or anyway claimed to be the Vision: the brooding, super powered android from Marvel Comics' Avengers. The comic-book Vision had the power to vary the density of his body, becoming a ghost if he wished to float through walls or doors, becoming diamond hard if he wished to stop bullets like Superman. Adam Cressner couldn't do any of this. This day he wasn't even wearing his cape or costume, but under black curls his broad face was smeared unevenly with red food dye, as it always was. I was fascinated. The Vision had come to be taken for granted at Public School 29, but I'd never seen him up close.
"Nice kick," I ventured, to Adam Cressner's back. The Vision had assumed a stance of readiness, one foot on the painted base, hands dangling between his knees Lou Brock-style. "Ultron-5 constructed me well," replied the Vision in the mournful monotone of a synthetic humanoid. Before I could speak again the ball was in the air, and Adam Cressner had scooted home to score, not pausing as he rounded third.
Now the Vision was a grown man in a sweatshirt moving an open Martini & Rossi carton-load of compact discs into the basement entrance of the next-door brownstone. I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne. I'd been returning from the corner bodega with a quart of milk when I recognized him instantly, even without his red face and green hood, or the yellow cape he'd worn in winter months. "Adam Cressner?" I asked. I made it a question to be polite: it was Adam Cressner.
"Do I know you?" Cressner's hair was still curly and loose, his eyes still wild blue.
"Not really. We went to school together."
"P.S. 29, fifth grade." I pointed thumbwise in the direction of Henry Street. I didn't want to say: You were the Vision, man! But I supposed in a way I'd just said it. "Joel Porush."
"Possibly I remember you." He said this with a weird premeditated hardness, as if not remembering but possibly remembering was a firm policy.
"Migrated back to the old neighborhood?"
Cressner placed the box at the slate lip of the basement stairwell and stepped around his gate to take my hand. "By the time we had a down payment we could barely afford this part of the city," he said. "But Roberta doesn't care that I grew up around here. She became entranced with the neighborhood reports in the City section."
"Ah." This left me with nothing to say except, "I should have you guys over for drinks."
The Vision lifted one Nimoy-esque eyebrow.
"When you get in and catch your breath, of course." You and the paramour.
I met Roberta at the border of our two backyards, the next Sunday. The rear gardens through the middle of the block were divided by rows of potted plants but no fence, allowing easy passage of cats and conversation. These communal yards were a legacy from the seventies that most new owners hadn't chosen to reverse. I had a basement renter's usual garden privileges, and was watering the plants which formed the border when Roberta Jar appeared at her back door. She introduced herself, and explained that she and Cressner had bought the house.
"Yes, I met Adam a few days ago," I said. "I know him, actually. From around here."
I'd supposed he'd told of our encounter in front, mentioned being recognized by a schoolmate. Now I had to wonder whether to explain Cressner's childhood fame. "We were at grade school together, on Henry Street. Long before this was a fashionable address. Surely he's walked you past his alma mater."
"Adam doesn't reminisce," said Roberta Jar coolly and, I thought, strangely. The assertion which could have been fond or defiant had managed to be neither. I thought of how Adam had possibly remembered, the week before.
"Funny, I do nothing else," I said. I hoped it was a charming line. Roberta Jar didn't smile, but her eyes flashed a little encouragement.
"Does it pay well?" she asked.
"Only when something gets optioned for the movies."
"How often is that?"
"It's like the lottery," I said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing. But that one time and you're golden."
I'd been blunted from the fact of my instinctive attraction to Roberta Jar, in those first moments, by her towering height. Roberta was six two, or three, I calculated, and with none of that hunched manner with which women apologize for great height or sizable breasts. So I'd been awed before being struck. By this time, though, I was struck too. Paramour- pyramid- pylon, I fooled with in my head.
I mentioned again having the two of them over for a drink. My evenings were very free since parting from Gia Maucelli, and I was stuck on what I'd blurted to Adam Cressner and had visualized ever since--a grown-up encounter, involving wine and sophisticated talk. No longer a couple, I still socialized like one in my imagination. Cressner and his tall woman would visit my apartment for drinks. They'd see the couple I'd been by Gia's phantom-limb absence, and ratify the couple I'd likely be again by the fact of themselves. In other words, perhaps Roberta Jar had a friend she could set me up with.
"Maybe," she said, utterly disinterested. "Or you could come along tonight. We're having a few people in."
"A housewarming party?"
"Actually, we're playing a game. You'd like it."
"Truth-or-dare, spin-the-bottle sort of thing?"
"More interesting than that. It's called Mafia. You should come--I think we still need a fifteenth."
For bridge or a dinner party you might need a fourth or a sixth--Roberta Jar and Adam Cressner needed a fifteenth. That was how close to essential I'd been encouraged to feel myself to be.
"How do you play Mafia?"
"It's hard to explain, but not to play."
I turned up with wine, still imposing my paradigm, but it was a beer thing I'd turned up at. Adam Cressner ushered me into the parlor, which was restored--new white marble fireplace and mantel, freshly remodeled plaster-rosette ceiling, blond polished floor--but unfurnished, and full instead of gray metal folding chairs like those you'd find in a church basement. The chairs were packed with Adam and Roberta's friends, all drinking from bottles and laughing noisily, too caught up to bother with introductions--when I counted I found myself precisely fifteenth. Roberta Jar was part of the circle, tall in her chair. I wondered if she stood taller than Adam--this was the first time I'd seen them together.
Adam had just been explaining the game, and he started again for me. I was one of four or five in the group who'd never played. Others threw in comments and suggestions as Adam explained the rules. "I'll be the narrator," Adam told us. "That means I'm not playing the game, but leading you through it."
"We want you to play, Adam," someone shouted. "Someone else can narrate. We've played, we know how."
"No, you need a strong narrator," said Adam. "You're an unruly bunch." I imagined I heard in his tone a hint of the Vision's selfless patronage of humanity.
According to the rules of Mafia, the group of fourteen comprised a "village"--except that three of us were "mafia" instead: false villagers working to bring the village down. These identities were assigned by dealt cards, black for village, red for mafia. The game then unfolded in cycles of "night" and "day." Night was when we closed our eyes and lowered our heads--"The village is asleep," Adam explained--with the exception of the three mafiosi. They instead kept their eyes open, and by an exchange of glances silently conspired to select a villager to kill. The victim would be informed of his or her death by the narrator, when night was over, and then make an orderly exit from the game.
Day, by contrast, was chaos, a period of free talk and paranoia among the sincere and baffled villagers--who, of course, included three dissembling mafiosi. Each day closed with the village agreeing by democratic vote on a suspect to banish. This McCarthyesque ritual lynching brought about night, and another attack from the mafia. And so on. The mafia won if they winnowed the village down to two or three, a number they could dominate in any voting, before the village purged all mafiosi from its ranks. It seemed to me like relentless jargonish nonsense, but I worked on a beer (telling Roberta the wine was "for the cellar"), checked out the women, and allowed myself to be swept into the group's flow. We began our first day in the village, peppered by Adam-the-narrator's portentous reminders, such as "Dead, keep your silence." I'd drawn a black card: villager.
Our village was young and boisterous, full of hot, beer-bright faces whose attachments I couldn't judge. It was also splendidly bl...
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