THE MEN IN Matthew Klam's debut story collection Sam the Cat behave wretchedly. They are selfish, wary of commitment, and hornier than beagles in heat. They flip out on the eve of their weddings and do dumb things. Yet deep down inside they all want the same thing--according to one narrator: "I wanted real love. Not a replay, not the same thing over and over again, not the same dinners, that same let's rent a video tonight."
It's not hard for Klam's characters to utter this admission. Getting them to act sensibly on that instinct is the tough part. The narrator of the title story gets so confused about love that he falls for a man with long hair, even though he's straight (or believes himself to be). In "Linda's Daddy's Loaded," a recently married ad man deals with a visit from his father-in-law, a famous newscaster, by taking out his frustrations on the family dog, rather than by commiserating with his wife. Throughout, Klam is so tuned in to his character's anxieties that the idiotic things they do--such as sleeping with a customer on the floor of a construction site a few days before a wedding--have a perverse rationale.
Klam's best stories go beyond studies in solipsism to meditate on the inner workings of love and hate in relationships. "There Should Be a Name for It" reveals what happens to a couple after they have an abortion. In "Not This" a young man in the throes of a messy breakup tests the pulse of his brother's marriage, which is then under the strain of infertility issues. And in "The Royal Palms," a young couple's first trip to the Caribbean nearly flounders on the rocks of their growing estrangement. Like Lorrie Moore, Klam strikes the perfect balance of gravity and insouciant bawdiness; he keeps his sense of humor as his characters lose theirs.
The final and longest story in the collection, "European Wedding" features the best and worst of Klam. There is a seemingly gratuitous sex scene, a woman-hating narrator, and a lot of wish-we-hadn't-gone-there details. Yet these elements pieced together make a worthwhile whole. The narrator is getting married in France and weather has prevented most of his family--most notably his father--from coming. He's alone with a houseful of French women and his bulimic wife. After a blowout, he and his wife reach a rapprochement, making love while the rest of the house listens. "If you stood on the patio you could hear low speaking of a certain raving nature. You could hear a little of the loony madness of it." And so Klam emerges as a psychotherapist for this disease that knows no cure, and which we're all ever eager to contract.