Jonathan Lethem



160pp/$24.95/February 2015

Lucky Alan
Ben Wiseman

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The stories which are included in Jonathan Lethem's Lucky Alan are nearly all tales of isolation, mental and emotional, if not physical. Few of his characters seem to be concerned, or even aware, of their segregation from the humanity thorugh which they move.

Sigismund Blondy is a New Yorker who seems typical of many of Lethem’s stories. Everyone knows him, yet nobody knows him better than he wants to be known. Ubiquitous in his circles, he only carefully controls how much each person sees of him, whether it is his accidental film-viewing buddy Grahame, who narrates this story, or “Lucky Alan” Zwelish, whose life Blondy has a strange interest in, no matter how much Zwelish cares about or for Blondy. The tale sets the tone for the tales in the collection, in which people are both surrounded by their compatriots, yet strangely separate and alone as they move through their lives.

While the two main characters of "The King of Sentences” have found each other, their snarkiness and feelings of superiority when it comes to books and language mean that they are still looking for more, and they think they've found it in a Salingeresque author who has written some of their favorite sentences. Their trip to visit him has menacing undertones that they are unable to see for themselves, but a true recluse, as their hunted author is, isn't without his own techniques for dealing with undesired attention.

"Traveler Home" places yet another anonymous individual apart from those who surround him. In this case, Lethem's protagonist is a urbanite who is residing in a rural setting and absolutely fails to appreciate the differences between living in the anonymity of the big city and the community of a less urban area. His snowplow operator's refusal to bill on a schedule but rather only when he's done enough to make it worth while, particularly drives him nuts. The discovery of a foundling, and the local's rather strange view of it, doesn't make him feel any more a part of the community in which he has found himself.

In "Procedure in Plain Air," Stevick is trying to find a job, although his methodology doesn't seem to be related to any known successful technique. On top of it all, while he does interact with people around him (returning to an urban environment), his iteractions are vague, disconnected. While Lethem's novels have explored the interconnectedness and almost hivemind of the city, "Procedure in Plain Air" and the other stories in Lucky Alan indicate the loneliness of being surrounded by other people.

"Their Back Pages" provides the first story with a large cast of characters, or perhaps characatures, as they all seem to come from stereotypical comic strips, perhaps from the thirties and forties, now finding themselves shipwrecked on a desert island. Although they do interact with each other, it is within the confines of their own archetypical comic characters, which makes their interactions unnatural. Murkley Finger is a villain and the heroes must treat him as such, no matter the extent of his crimes. King Phnudge is the ruler of the Phnudge and must maintain that exalted position, whether there are Phnudge to rule or not. And the story works because Lethem clearly has a love the of Sunday comics (well, two are in black and white) that inspired this tale.

"The Porn Critic," a job that sounds like it should be somewhat solitary, offers the character, Kromer, who seems to have the most connections. Kromer's reputation as a libertine comes jointly from his palling around with trust fund party girl Greta and his job as a night clerk at an adult bookstore. While he views himself as a normal guy who just wants to have a relationship, he isn't above using his reputation to attract or

"The Empty Room" is not so much an empty space as it is a .tabula rasa when a family moves from New York to the country. While most of the stories in this collection focus on separateness, "The Empty Room" is the introduction the family uses to make friends in their new surrounding. In the end, however, the room seems to exert its own magic of alienation, only allowing members of the family who escape the house and the room the chance of building normal relationship. For all his reputation, however, Kromer's ability to read other people is suspect and he, perhaps, lets his reputation and his need to maintain it get in his way.

In the modern digital age, one form of social action is the blog, to the extent that many feel it is an extension of their home. The blogger of "The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear" certainly feels as if he has built as much a physical space as a virtual one. Keeping in theme with the rest of the stories in Lucky Jim, the narrator is both a part of a culture, the blogosphere, but also separate from it, leaving his own blog to squatters he doesn't want to deal with, while occasionally stepping in the reassert himself from the safely of the far side of the internet.

Just as the collection opens with a story about a character trying to figure out who he is with regard to others, Lethem ends the collection with “Pending Vegan,” about a man going through a mid-life crisis as his children are beginning to grow up while he tries to figure out his role in the world. Paul Espeseth has already determined his new identity as “Pending Vegan,” although he is not yet comfortable enough with it to share this new name with his family. On a visit with his children to Sea World, he tries to come to terms with his new identity and the fact that he is keep it, and other things, from his family.

The stories in Lucky Alan continuously posit individuals who are alone, even when surrounded by family, friends, or the bustling metropolis of New York. They are damaged people who need to seek validation from outside sources, even when that validation may already exist, but they are unable to see if for themselves.

Lucky Alan The Porn Critic
The King of Sentences The Empty Room
Traveling Home The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear
Procedure in Plain Air Pending Vegan
Their Back Pages

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