Becker's 'Dangerous Men': the meaning of promise

January 07, 1996|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

"Dangerous Men," by Geoffrey Becker. University of Pittsburgh Press. 161 pages. $22.50

Let us now overpraise "Dangerous Men."

That seems to be the marketing strategy for this first book of short stories by Geoffrey Becker, which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 1995, an indulgent review in the New York Times, and a gushy blurb from the writer Charles Baxter.

It's not that this author is without talent. There are some promising moments in this collection, but it's a small book, and the stories are slight. "It was the kind of night where your skin itches and the heat seems to sweat the street life right out of the city's pores," riffs the title story about three stoned, teen-aged music students out on a summer's night spree. "We wandered through streets that seemed mirror images of themselves, angled and dark, the tall, brown faces of the row houses looking out at us with the calmness of age and location. The pavement was swollen and soft and the metal of the closely parked cars ticked with the day's heat." This is evocative writing, yet there is too much wandering through these streets, with a promise of action that is never fulfilled. Clearly the story's title is meant to be ironic; there is no real danger in evidence here, nor any men.

The collection's other stories have the same meandering quality, full of dazed young characters trying to find their way. In "The Handstand Man," a twenty-something guy named Jimi-John tries impress his decamping girlfriend by filling his Manhattan apartment with sand and palm trees to create a makeshift beach. In "Erin and Malcolm," another story set in New York, a failing rock-and-roller accidentally deep-fries his girlfriend's ferret, while in "Down at the Studio," two brothers in the music business wrangle over a woman who has no interest in either of them. These are tales chock-full of fiction-workshop gimmicks (one story, "Daddy D. and Short Time," actually features a compulsively lying dwarf), all reaching too high for quirky originality when they ought to be digging for depth in their Gen-X protagonists.

There are several pieces here that do manage to succeed. "El Diablo de La Cienega" is a devil fable set in a New Mexico trailer park, where a 12-year-old boy in a basketball duel against a stranger gambles his soul in return for curing his sick mother. In "Magister Ludi," a 17-year-old girl watches the emergence of her younger brother from awkward boy to cool-guy guitarist with both bafflement and jealousy, while in "Taxes," the relationship between an African-American boy named Pretzel and an elderly Jewish accountant in a dying Brooklyn neighborhood is affectingly revealed. These are hardly more than sketches, and none seems startlingly fresh, yet each of these three stories has an emotional momentum that is lacking in the rest of this rather inert little book.

Cyril Connolly once famously wrote that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising. Geoffrey Becker's is a slim, tender talent that deserves a few more years' germination among the small literary quarterlies where many of these stories first appeared, not the cynical over-promotion that his publishers have calculated to appeal to Generation-X consumers.

Donna Rifkind writes for the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Criterion, for which she used to be assistant managing editor.

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