By Arthur Bradford
Knopf, 144 pp., $20
Arthur Bradford's story "Catface" first appeared in Cornell University's journal Epoch in the spring of 1996. Bradford, who was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University at the time, gained something of an underground following soon afterward.
"Catface" is a mesmeric first-person narrative that begins, "The disability payments were being cut down since, according to their doctor, I was getting better." Upon reading that first line, you know that here is a humorous voice from left field, perfect for the times, and the story is sure to be a sort of paean to slackerdom and modern neuroses. It is indeed that and more. "Catface" won an O. Henry Award in 1996, and now, five years after its initial publication, it joins 11 other stories by Arthur Bradford in his long-awaited debut collection, Dogwalker.
The hilarious "Catface," which opens the collection, is a tour de force work of fiction on the brink of absurdism. The nameless, passive narrator wanders through a seemingly timeless world where responsibility has faded or been worn away, the beleaguered are doomed to always cross paths with the merely hapless, and the only way to come out of it all still intact is to remain serenely dumbfounded and imperturbably cool. The narrator is just that as he, having been out of work for months, goes about the task of securing a roommate to split the cost of his studio apartment. The first is Thurber, a kleptomaniac and destroyer of potted plants who snores loudly. Asked to find another place to live, Thurber packs up his things (and some of the narrator's) and leaves amiably enough. The second seems to be unaware that she is a hooker, and the third stays for only three days -- let's just say his past catches up with him. And then comes Jimmy. He sets up a tent as his room and arranges for Thurber, who's been coming back around, to get beaten up. This incident sets off a sequence of mishaps, odd voodoolike ceremonies, and fateful chance meetings with the grotesquely lovable that make the story one of the funniest and most imaginative to appear in the Nineties. As for the rest of the stories in Dogwalker, some deliver on the promise of "Catface" while others are pleasing but not of the same you've-got-to-read-this caliber. Particularly fun are "Bill McQuill" and "Dogs."
Bradford seems to have simultaneously lucked onto the Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka crowd. With his deliberately simple, charmed prose (a la Carver) and the surreal elements that make up his stories (a la Kafka), he walks what many consider to be new fictional ground. But such reactions are a bit myopic. Like the Jews of antiquity, today's readers of literary fiction seem to always be desperately searching for a savior, a jinni of the written word, a reincarnated hero of the past: Though Bradford does not necessarily call either to mind, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor are the two old heroes most popular in the South. (Very prevalent these days are harebrained reviews touting some mediocre, excruciatingly melodramatic author as a new version of one or a metaphysically colluded symbiosis of both of those arguably irreplaceable writers.)
Bradford is very good and very funny, but he is most definitely not, as David Sedaris has opined, "the most outlandish and energetic writer" (Thomas Pynchon is still and will probably always be the reigning champ of madness and absolute cerebral muscle).
So by all means rush out and buy Dogwalker but don't do it expecting to save your reader's soul. Do it because it's great fun. You can be sure of this. Do it because you love Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose" and William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man and Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" and William Gass' In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Kurt Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House" and Donald Barthelme's "Indian Uprising." What's that? You haven't read them all? Well, that's understandable. Those are just some of the former saviors of fiction. -- Jeremy Spencer
By Ved Mehta
Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 345 pp., $24.95
Somewhere inside two years of psychotherapy followed by two years of psychoanalysis Ved Mehta said to his Park Avenue doctor, "You can't imagine the amount of reading and writing I have to get through in a day."
He was right. His doctor couldn't imagine it, because, strictly speaking, Mehta neither reads nor writes. He's normally read to by and dictates to an amanuensis (Mehta's word of choice) because he's blind and has been since meningitis knocked out his eyesight, age 4, in his native India. But he doesn't want you to think of him as blind, doesn't want to think of himself as blind, and in All For Love, book nine in Mehta's continuing series of autobiographical writings, "Continents of Exile," didn't want his girlfriends thinking so either. In fact, he made it a precondition of loving them that they not think so at all. What kind of woman would date a man, live with a man, get pregnant by him, engaged to him, and not once mention the fact the man couldn't see? Four kinds and in this order, according to the four women described in this book: a prima ballerina, a jobless neurotic, a total ingrate, and a borderline psychotic.
Girlfriend #1, the ballerina, 1962: Gigi dances for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, things between her and Mehta are going great guns. Then Gigi brings up ex-boyfriend David in Switzerland, then Mehta goes impotent, then Gigi tells Mehta, "I am utterly fascinated by you. My feelings for you are profound." Then David suddenly shows up from Switzerland, Gigi agrees to marry him, and Gigi calls Mehta at work at The New Yorker to break the bad news. Mehta goes to "the loo" and sits in a stall. Then he worries that his amanuensis is wondering where he is. Then he wonders if this same amanuensis knows she's just witnessed one of the "worst shocks" he's ever received. In 1994 Mehta calls Gigi: "There was never a chance that things could have worked out with us, was there?" Gigi, the soul of tact: "No, there was never any chance."
Girlfriend #2, the neurotic, 1963: Mehta runs into unemployed Vanessa, from his Oxford days, on the street in New York. Immediate sexual fireworks, if and when she isn't jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to walk a dog, which apparently needs a lot of walking. Already sounds fishy, but it gets worse. While Mehta is in London, Vanessa's hooking up with a waiter in Little Italy. Mehta's "irritated." Vanessa and the waiter marry, Vanessa goes into "deep" psychoanalysis (to deal with "her feelings of pain and chaos"). Then Vanessa comes into a "substantial" inheritance. Then Vanessa takes up with a Hindu guru. In a letter to Mehta in 1999 Vanessa finally described to him "the dog- sitting situation." Conclusion: Although Mehta and Vanessa had "shared a bed," at a "deeper level" he "had not known her at all."
Girlfriend #3, the ingrate, 1966: Lola is Mehta's perfect amanuensis: quick-thinking, hard-working, half-Punjabi (Mehta is full Punjabi), and, what's more, they share the same birthday! They travel India for a book Mehta is researching, get it on immediately. Mehta returns to New York, Lola has an awful lot of trouble joining him. Lola hooks up with a record-store clerk named Gus, Lola gets pregnant by Gus, Lola gets an abortion, Lola moves to New York, Lola sets up house with Mehta, Lola leaves New York to join Gus in London (to get him "out of [her] system"; Mehta pays for the trip). Then Mehta joins Lola in London, Mehta takes Lola to Spain, Lola gets pregnant by Mehta, Lola gets another abortion, the second in 10 months, etcetera and whatever. Lola ends up in New Delhi as head of a string of shops called the Denim Depot, but the latest Mehta heard Lola has taken up with a "holy woman." As for Gus? He dead.
Girlfriend #4, the borderline psychotic, 1968: Mehta, now 35, falls for Kilty (for Katherine): 24, a native New Yorker, a poet, a grad student in English at Yale, and, you guessed it, a walking basket case. Poor Mehta. When Kilty isn't babytalking, isn't adoring Mehta, isn't hating Mehta, she's complaining of "demons," getting pregnant by her (ex- ?)boyfriend Coby (a case and a half himself), having a D&C, and seeing a shrink in Scarsdale. Poor shrink. After six months, he pronounces Kilty "unanalyzable." You will, after a few pages of Kilty, have already pronounced her unbearable. The latest update: No news is good news.
Which brings us back to the Park Avenue doctor above, Mehta's own shrink, who forces the author, over the course of some 400 hours of therapy whittled down to some 70 pages of transcripted sessions at the close of All For Love -- sessions recalled word-for-word by Mehta? recorded word-for- word by his trusty amanuensis? did the good doctor know his own remarks were being recorded? how did this make the good doctor feel? -- to maybe give some thought to certain features of Mehta's psyche it doesn't take an analyst to uncover: that Mehta is a "Milquetoast" and "masochist" and clearly caught up in the classic Oedipus complex. Other conclusions I'll leave in the hands of a professional because only a professional could come up with them, the chief being that Mehta is unknowingly "projecting" the doctor into the role of his "fifth lover." The clue: The author and analyst used the same laundry! "It's going to sound silly to you," Dr. Bak tells his uncomprehending analysand, "but ... unconsciously you wanted your underpants to be washed with my underpants."
Yeah, it sounds silly because it is silly, but Mehta's life since sounds nifty: a happy marriage and two children. Check future installments of "Continents of Exile," as written by (dictated by) Ved Mehta, on the off-chance more comes out in the wash. -- Leonard Gill