Neil LaBute: Seconds of Pleasure

Neil LaBute
Seconds of Pleasure
Grove Press

A middle-aged white guy, used to the medium-finer things in life--Radisson Hotels and Ford Tauruses and United Airlines Gold Cards--looks at a hot girl, maybe underage, probably legal, and wishes...nothing in particular. He just looks with a certain kind of yearning and then says forget-about-it and returns to the business of his swelling IRA account and incipient heart disease.

And that, in a nutshell, is Seconds of Pleasure, 221 pages of doodulation from the viscount of vitriol, Neil LaBute. A series of petit four-sized narratives, Seconds aspires to the hyper-terse-yet-profound, microchip quality of Donald Barthelme's volumes of short fiction. Yet LaBute can barely bench-press his way to fourth-rate Stephen King.

In the volume's sole successful story, "Los Feliz," a TV show runner simmers as a ponytailed dweeb paws at the Locklear-licious star of his series...only to discover that the dweeb is, in fact, her brother. Yet LaBute's punch line is so 10-ton it makes you laugh out loud at its sheer ungainliness, like uncovering the telltale clue in a volume of Encyclopedia Brown.

Where LaBute's hero, John Updike, can spin gossamer metaphors from his deep background in history, literature, science, carpentry, gynecology, and car repair, the filmmaker-turned-poetaster reaches for the lamest referents. A silver-haired gent leaving a strip joint in "Open All Night" looks like "an extra from one of those movies Walt Disney made in England in the Sixties." (Quick: Name one of those movies! Then describe the extras!)

Another Casanova likens an upcoming conquest to "that black runner that was in the Olympics a few years ago." At one point, in the opening sentence of a story, LaBute gets so lazy he just lays his intentions bare: "They remind him of the girls in that John Updike story, the one about the guy in the supermarket."

Almost all of Seconds reads like it was scratched out on a legal pad in a hotel room, flipping between three channels of golf and waiting for the patty melt to arrive. What gives? How does the LaBute Project keep marching on? The secret given away by Seconds of Pleasure is that LaBute is a guy who makes shallow people feel deep. These quick-read storylets, written in a style that wouldn't be out of place in Men's Fitness magazine, convey a hard-to-miss message: People may act all nice and stuff, but deep down they're mean little shits!

LaBute's yarns have devolved from impersonations of Seventies British "brutalist" drama to crushingly obvious gobsmackers that play like a humiliating round of reality TV. Just wait about 24 months for the author's next cagey branding maneuver: the inevitable kinder, gentler LaBute.

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