The Idiots

Ethan Coen
Gate of Eden
Rob Weisbach Books

Characters in Coen Brothers comedies fall into two categories: stupid and willful, and stupid and inept. Think of Marge Gunderson, the plodding detective in Fargo, interrogating Jerry Lundegaard, the guilty "brains" behind his wife's kidnapping. Each is a particular brand of knucklehead (one a stubborn dimwit, the other a squirming ninny). The way these two kinds of idiots rub together is what gives the scenes their comic heat.

Unlike conventional comedies that contain a wise character who is above mockery, if you're on-screen in a Coen brothers movie, the joke is on you. The same is true of the stories in Gates of Eden, Ethan Coen's first book. Like their cinematic counterparts, the hapless characters in this collection are subject to condescension and scorn. There are mobsters, gunsels, and detectives--there's even an investigator from the California Department of Weights and Measures--and each suffers mightily at the hands of an author who clearly enjoys the art of invention, but who seems to harbor no love for his creations.

Coen's main talent is dialogue--no surprise, given his background in screenplays. As in those works, Coen displays a special gift for finding comedy in frustrated conversation. One of the greatest joys of the book is listening to Moron A talk to Moron B. In "Johnnie Ga-Botz," one of three stories that are written almost entirely as dialogue, a mob boss and his hitman go back and forth in an effort to clarify the details of a delinquent debtor's execution.


Johnnie: You cut his dick off, you stick it up his ass, [say] "Johnnie Ga-Botz wants to know how you like it," you shoot him in the head.

Monk: Okay. So if...well, okay.

Johnnie: What?

Monk: Well, what if he--I know he says he don't like it, I shoot him inna head; he says he does like it, I shoot him inna head; he don't say nothin', I shoot him inna head, okay I get all that, but what if he, you know...

Johnnie: What?

Monk: Well, says somethin', not I like it I don't like it, but something else, so he's not sayin' nothin'...

Johnnie: What? So what?

Monk: Well... I still shoot him?

Johnnie: What the fuck? Yeah ya shoot him!

Monk: Uh-huh.

Johnnie: Come on! Don't overthink this fuckin' thing! The point is to shoot him inna head!

Monk: Right.

Johnnie: The other stuff, cuttin' his dick off, stickin' it up his ass, that's just...

Monk: Extra.


Those familiar with the Coens' work will recognize the casual brutality and the platinum ear in the above exchange, while the uninitiated will wonder once again what the fuss is about. Robbed of any visual aids, the stories in Gates of Eden feel particularly slight.

In "Destiny," Joe Carmody is a college graduate who strains against convention by trying his hand at boxing and petty crime. The story opens with a hilarious first-person account of his virgin bout, with Carmody observing his first-round drubbing with clinical distance. Later he foolishly gets involved in a perverse rivalry between two mob bosses who feud with each other by sexually degrading each others' wives. At each plot turn, Carmody submits to another beating, including one at the hands of a motel maid who thrashes him with a vacuum-cleaner pipe. In the end, however, the reader is left wondering if this slab of authorial sadism has a point.

In addition to the dialogue stories, the more cohesive efforts are present-tense pieces such as "It Is an Ancient Mariner," "Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland" and "Red Wing," all of which essentially function as monologues. The former, a barroom tale of infidelity in Beaumont, Texas, is reminiscent of the opening voiceovers from Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski. The folksy narrator knows every detail of the affair between Radio Ronnie and Marcia Ziegler, but he keeps an ironic distance until the end, when he reveals he is an intimate part of the story he tells.

In "Red Wing," a repressed Scandinavian confesses to decapitating his wife. It's an easy joke, but the Minnesota cadence is spot on; it should be popular with the locals. "See, she was makin' it impossible for me to have, you know, sex relations with her, by using it as a thing to beat me up with. So just thinking about that made it impossible for me to have sex relations. I mean the sex act, it's supposed to be about things that, uh, two people--you know, not things of, winning or losing or beating someone, the sex act, the fleshly thing that, uh, the holy joy of, ya know, the celebration that--well, it just wasn't right." Haven't we all felt like that at some time in our lives?

Unfortunately, when Coen ventures away from what amounts to screenwriting, his work loses its center. "The Old Country" begins promisingly, with a character sketch of Michael Simkin, a Hebrew-school rebel who terrorizes his fellow students with inspired acts of obscenity. But the narrator quickly digresses into a wandering memoir about growing up. At the end of the story, the narrator returns to Simkin to divulge how the child's parents broke his spirit, but the moment has been lost.

Coen also gets into trouble when he moves away from comedy. "I Killed Phil Shapiro" contains descriptions of growing up Jewish in Minneapolis, and while there are some fresh moments, they are undermined by the overall earnestness of the story. "The Boys," which tells of an emotionally remote father who takes his sons camping, suffers from the same attempt at seriousness. In both stories, the more sober moments reek of good intentions. It's like the end of a big Hollywood comedy, when suddenly the laughs evaporate and the feel-good message of self-acceptance and brotherhood is tied to a brick and thrown through your front window.

Both "I Killed Phil Shapiro" and "The Boys" also lack an emotional center, a problem that surfaces throughout the book. This soullessness is one of the prices of Coen's highly ironic style, and introduces a paradox: The same reader who is detached enough to enjoy Gates of Eden is unlikely to find any deeper satisfaction in it.

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