As January creeps from day to day, one can easily slip into a malaise. Perhaps the dispiriting gloom of winter in Minnesota accounts for the acute sense of existential dread that hangs over Alvin Greenberg's short-story collection, How the Dead Live (Graywolf Press). Such an explanation is certainly more generous than attributing the pervasive melancholy of these 15 tales to simple morbidity.
Greenberg, a professor at Macalester College and a poet and novelist, certainly seems to have developed a taste for the grave. Though the individual stories in How the Dead Live range from Chekhovian dissections of middle-class ennui to wry meditations on middle age, they all share a nearly neurotic preoccupation with death. In "Grubner in Traffic," for example, a successful lawyer gets caught in rush-hour gridlock and sees Death in the late-model sports car next to him. Naturally, the knowledge that the grim reaper is tailgating him sends the schlimazel into a head-on collision with his own mortality. What truly frightens poor Grubner, it turns out, is not the prospect of a tangible Death on the highways, but rather the "omnipresent, abstract" specter of death that seems to lurk around every curve in the road.
Even when Death doesn't make a physical appearance, existential angst haunts Greenberg's stories. In one particularly macabre anecdote, "Total Immersion," a man named Spivak drives himself to the hospital after his prostate malfunctions. As he drowns in his own urine, he contemplates how much pain a human can endure. In another, titled "Crimes Against Humanity," a suicidally depressed florist wanders through her hopelessly botched life wondering how much evil a person can do in a single lifetime. Even if they haven't given up the ghost, these people are already dead, Greenberg suggests, because they have given up their humanity and entombed themselves in the numbing detritus of existence.
Worst off of the bunch is the protagonist of the title story, a despondent businessman named Fiedelman. After being waylaid by a knife-wielding mugger, Fiedelman argues convincingly to his attacker that he's not even worth filleting. "I'm pig healthy," he explains. "I'm as good as a dead man because I don't care whether I live or die, it doesn't make any difference to me because I don't have anything to live for."
Though such affected weltschmerz often deadens the impact of Greenberg's stories, he also injects his prose with a wink-and-nod sense of irony that lightens the pathos and transcends the pointlessness of the tales themselves. Certainly, there are some moments of deadpan humor buried in the graver material. In a nod to Joseph Heller, for instance, the anti-hero of "No Loose Ends" is given the name Henry Henry. Another story, "Scholars and Lovers," is a playful parody of Nabokov. Nevertheless, a little laughter in the dark is ultimately not enough to breathe life into stories in which nothing happens. One must wonder if Greenberg's digressive wit might have been put to better service in writing about something a bit more lively.