Fast, sad stories by Matthew Klam

May 07, 2000|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

"Sam the Cat and Other Stories," by Matthew Klam. Random House. 272 pages. $22.95.

Matthew Klam's short stories have been slouching brattily across the New Yorker's pages for several years now, and in 1999 the magazine rightly -- named him one of its 20 Best Writers Under 40. Klam writes in the loping, unfussy style of the great New Yorker minimalists, with few obvious metaphors and none of the phony, tasteful, mind-numbing scene-setting that can make you stop reading a story after the eighth line.

A lot of writers work that "natural" style, but they retain their tin and academic ear. Klam is spot-on, he's genuinely funny, as opposed to "book-funny," and he's actually relevant the way, say, Don Delillo is relevant. In all but one of the stories collected in his first book, "Sam the Cat and Other Stories," he brings his young, mean, sort-of-privileged white guys to startling, immediate first-person life.

For instance, the narrator of "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy" gives a drunken wedding-toast at his loathsome, Clintonesque friend Bob's awful wedding. Turning to Bob's fiance, he toasts, "If you're going to live your life together ... you must never stand directly in front of him after he has eaten a large meal. It's very dangerous ... Don't be surprised if he sticks his finger down his throat and throws up all over your car."

The narrator is appalling -- in an endearing way -- but we root for him because his nemesis, Bob, is the kind of guy who's become emblematic of wimpy American maleness during the past 10 years. Bob "knew Bill Bradley's weak spots, the trajectory of chinese rocketry. He had constant weight problems ... He kept popcorn in a lunch bag in his suit-coat pocket ... He'd been bingeing on wheat-grass pills for four days and had stomach cramps and diarrhea but he said he felt 'fantastic.' "

If I were a young white girl of a certain milieu who intended to romance and mate within the tribe, Klam's stories would fill me with real dread -- not only because his guys are so uncomfortable being men (I mean, the guys in these stories will not be winning barroom fights with Russell Crowe), but also because they cast such a withering eye on the women in their lives, jauntily cataloguing every physical flaw, every emotional need.

"What was wrong with any of them?" asks the narrator of the title story. "Paula was small and dark and depressed and smoked a lot of cigarettes ... Holly's eyes crossed when she got tired. She was chunky and slept twelve hours a night. Boots had an interest in open-air sex but acted lazy and as unimportant as a secretary." If you read them straight through, the collection's first six stories leave you feeling awed, saddened, a little bit hungover.

And then Klam goes and knocks you out with the final story, an awesome departure that reads as if he'd signed on to the Dogma 95 manifesto of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. The story, "European Wedding," expands his themes of American male alienation but takes on the female point of view, too -- and with utter success. It completes and expands the collection, casting a worldly, melancholy light on the faster, funnier stories that preceded it.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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