"I am in The Contraption. My eyes, which the doctor has dilated, are pinned
"I’m in a sex shop in San Francisco watching my father buy a
leather jumpsuit for his gay lover."
"I was fourteen when I saw the Loch
"My picture of Elvis is bleeding."
It’s generally agreed that the
writers’ code of etiquette stipulates time shares in hell for blabby book
reviewers who give away endings. But one trusts that succumbing to the urge to
quote first sentences is at worst a venial offense. In the case of Tod
Goldberg’s new story collection, "Simplify," these lines serve not only to show
how a seductive pull can radiate from a handful of words, they also stand as
markers for certain traits shared among the 12 stories in the novelist’s first
collection: They are almost all told in the first person, the
narrator-protagonist is a boy or young(ish) man, and there is an omnipresence of
bizarre apparitions, as well as uninvited drop-ins from beyond reality.
In Goldberg-land, logic is of the dream variety, and reason doesn’t
stand a chance. The first and perhaps most affecting story, "The Jesus of
Cathedral City," features a young, loving, service-economy couple ("We just want
a simple life") who receive the decidedly mixed blessing of finding Jesus —
really finding Him. They drop in total confusion to their knees upon recognizing
the Son of Man "walking down the street in the annual Christmas Gay Pride
Cavalcade, wearing a dress that made Him look like Scarlett O’Hara." A
post-parade friendship forms over lattes: " ‘Will we see you again?’ … ‘I expect
that the three of us will run into each other … when I really need you guys.’ "
Later, He appears as a hired Santa, then as a pizza delivery guy. He struggles
to describe heaven and hell to his dazzled, suffering disciples in terms of a
Starbucks analogy. In short, so much wry insight, poignancy and near-revelation
pulse in this one story — in this respect it’s reminiscent of "The Turn of the
Screw" — that the disappointingly stagey final scene feels like sudden
abandonment. Surely, mama, this can’t be the end?
Endings, in general,
are not Goldberg’s strong suit. With the notable exception of "Myths of Our
Time," the closing paragraphs of these engrossing tales tend to fall rather
flat. At best the wearied narrator may pose an additional question or two, but
he is unable or unwilling to speculate on the chain of often supernatural events
to which he’s been subjected. "Subjected" is a key term here, because the
Goldberg narrator tends to be a passive kind of guy, a good-hearted Joe at
bottom even though he may go through a patch of doing bad things, such as
letting his best friend get clubbed to death or robbing the Dairy Queen or
cutting out on a girl he knocked up. A relative of Kafka’s K. and George
Saunders’ hirelings, he remains, despite all efforts to dodge harm, the
bewildered recipient of his hit-and-run fate.
What’s at stake, then?
Apart from incursions of the supernatural, "Simplify" works certain besetting
themes. Five of these stories center on children who are lost or have met a
violent death — often the child is the narrator’s sibling. In three of them
suicide looms large, while five again (obviously there is overlap) feature a
protagonist whose heart and sanity have been left on life support by the girl
who walked away. But for all of this thematic repetition, each story excites on
its own. Fortunate the writer who discovers his obsessions early, for he’ll have
that much more time to transform them in fiction, to provoke the sources of
their fearsome power.
A short story is all about voice, and Tod
Goldberg’s fine ear for dialogue and for the spoken nuances of social
microstrata enable him to dispense with reams of descriptive background and cut
straight to the heart of the matter. If sometimes his overwhelmed characters
fail to fully engage emotionally, their deadpan delivery of jolting ironies
reaches to laugh-out-loud heights of insight.
Even the collection’s title
has a sardonic ring. While hardly simple, "Simplify" is devilishly entertaining.