'Gates of eden': a Coen's hyperirony

November 29, 1998|By Michael Gray | Michael Gray,SUN STAFF

"Gates of Eden," by Ethan Coen. Rob Weisbach Books/ William Morrow. 261 pages. $24. Oh geez, Marge. Ya know those Coen brothers, right? Sure ya do. Those two fellas from 'round Minneapolis, went off to New York, make those movies folks are always callin' "darkly comic?" "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," for gosh sakes. So anyways, what I'm tryin' to tell ya is that the younger one, Ethan, he's got a book out now and I'm tellin' ya, it's a hoot!

"Gates of Eden" is a hoot. Or several little hoots, actually: 14 short pieces of writing in the forms of monologues, scripts, memoirs and the occasional narrative populated by the same sorts of irony-plagued characters and situations that are the staples of Coen films.

From a college-educated but witless prizefighter who gets mixed up with the mob to a slow-to-anger husband who inevitably decapitates the wife who endlessly "churns his gut," Coen's stories drip with the sensibility made so famous in Coen brothers films - comedy so dark it can be blinding, irony so thick it could curdle your milk. Like the films, most offer a look into various tawdry yet idealized worlds, where there's always just the right flaw or lack of insight or physical deformity to make the sad joke work.

It's probably impossible to see it anyway, given Coen's film identity, but his writing is cinematic. Characters, their movements and their environments are artfully drawn. The dialogue, almost always in one distinctive dialect or another, is often razor sharp.

If there's one flaw in these stories, it's that most aren't really stories at all; that is, they don't take us from one place to another, from conflict to resolution. Most are more like extended character sketches, and while that may not be entirely satisfying, these wonderful characters are the book's strength, and its charm.

There is the aforementioned prizefighter, Joe Carmody, whose unfortunate boxing career is his self-prescribed antidote to a dull post-collegiate life in publishing or advertising. When he finds himself in over his head, the middle man in a feud between two mobsters, he tries to explain himself out of trouble, telling a man threatening to break his bones that "I'm not really part of this world ... I'm - I'm on a safari. This is a safari, sir. I'm not one of the actual, er ... animals, as it were." To which the patiently listening mobster replies: "You express yourself - marvelously. However. It does not hide the inner core. Which is confusion. And so - you will have the s- beat out of you. Which is my last word."

There are monologues, like the closing story "Red Wing," a long-suffering Minnesota husband's explanation of just what led up to him beheading his wife. A man of such equanimity that when his wife insults him by suggesting he's more sexually attracted to his ice-fishing buddy Norm than to her, he deliberately assembles a fantasy of Norm doing a strip-tease to test her thesis.

There are also short scripts, complete with stage directions. In one, "The Old Boys," a cadre of foppish British spies harrumph their way to an O. Henry-esque ending. Another, "Johnnie Ga-Botz," reveals a planned mob hit through a series of mundane phone calls.

Then there is "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator," easily the book's Coen scenario supreme: a one-eared, deaf private investigator hired by a blind man to track down the wife he's never seen.

Geez, now that's irony.

Michael Gray is features news editor of The Sun. He is one of the 12 people on Earth who did not like "Fargo."

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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