FEW PEOPLE CAN make a living writing short stories. Sell one here, one there, sweat some blood and brain fluid in the process, and you still end up a full-time food-service professional. A story, even a wonderful one, doesn't receive the cash rewards a successful book can. So it makes sense to bundle these shorts together and sell them as a book--except that a book of short stories by one of today's glum, smarty-pants writers is often a colossal bummer to have to read.
It's best to sample one of David Gilbert's stories in isolation from the others. Individually, in their appearances in Harper's and The New Yorker, Gilbert's works have a knowing, satisfying realism. These characters are people you know--the fat-faced baby-sitter, the whiny kid, the couple with problems--and Gilbert projects them in full color, lets you into their routines and then their heads, and then twists the story in the end. Yeah, you do know these people, but you kinda wish you didn't. They're too depressing, too far beyond help. And their moments of epiphany--as clever a literary device as this is--aren't going to change anything: Everyone just goes back to the same sad old life.
This is the way short stories work these days, and it's a rare writer who can break that gait and write a satisfying ending, introduce a surprising character, or even devise something as fundamental as a plot. Gilbert is occasionally that writer. In "Cool Moss," he explores a group of friends who've become a little weary of each other, a little embarrassed to have become so bourgeois and boring. To mitigate this truth, the clique begins to host a round of parties, struggling to best each other with ever-more-thrilling theme parties, culminating in a theme party that is designed to change everyone's life. And to everyone's surprise, it works--a little.
This is refreshing, and as near to a happy ending as Gilbert dares approach. In "Girl With Large Foot Jumping Rope," a clogged toilet is posited as emblematic of some great, mysterious unknown. Its significance bothers the plunger-wielding protagonist, and at the end the toilet (and the point of the story) remains obstinately plugged. These exercises in introspection are countered with outrageous, T.C. Boyle-like tales in which edgy, cell-phone desperadoes and soulless photojournalists in exotic locales blow themselves or other people to smithereens.
Gilbert seems like two different writers in this book: One who hawks moroseness through personal portraits, the other who offers the same thing through High Adventure. One story at a time, this book efficiently fires up the dark imagination. Taken in one dose, it's kind of depressing.