Sex and the Witty

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 There’s Something Wrong with Sven combines imaginative leaps worthy of Calvino and Vonnegut with tragicomic irreverence of the George Saunders variety.

With all the hyper-sexed characters and situations in There’s Something Wrong with Sven, Greg Gerke’s story collection might just as well be called In Flagrante Delicto. In “Jolt and La Petite Mort,” Jake, a preteen, after having an inappropriate talk with his mother, has sex with one of his mother’s friends, then gushes: “It was sex, wondrous sex. On and on. Sex, Oh God, and Goddess. Sex. Sex. Sex.” In “Batter Up,” a right fielder, after hearing about the third baseman’s sex with his wife, “wrestles his bat away from the bat boy, clubs the third baseman on the head, jumps into the stands” and has sex with the “woman on top of the dugout.” Ned, in “Why We Love the Germans,” is caught “sucking at Candace’s small, pert nipples.” A poor tour guide in “This Is Where We Keep Vivaldi’s Body” fields questions about his wife’s former career as a porn star and about the disjointedness that enables him to suck himself off.

Characters with strange names like Peter the Pirate, Mother Goose, Tiramasu, Deuce Billygoat, and Pawdy show up in Gerke’s stories, as does a cancer-ridden thousand-pound moth named Sven. Saint James makes a post-grave appearance, as does Vivaldi, albeit as a well-dressed, preserved, and—most importantly—silent corpse. There’s Something Wrong with Sven combines imaginative leaps worthy of Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut with tragicomic irreverence of the George Saunders variety.

Greg Gerke

Greg Gerke

And that’s just the stories in “Bacchanalian,” the first of Sven’s three sections. In the second, “Saturnine,” Gerke expands his range and widens his scope—violence, dark dreams, fatigue, restlessness, betrayal, and death suffuse these stories. It’s as if they, too, lived in the “house of jaundiced curtains” from one of the stories here. In “Now Come the Days,” a disaffected character asks a fish, “But what is your psychology of death? Your final wishes? Maybe you would prefer to be alone at the end. To swim behind some riverstone, lie down and close your eyes. Without a dirge, without any myth or anecdotes to remember you by.”

Sex does rear its hard head again in “Speak and Sweat,” in which Nick can’t believe “the great firm asses of women he sees at the short rock climbing wall in the local gym” and considers “how he’d love to be smothered by one.” But after being reported for groping the receptionist, he’s put to death in the gym’s basement, “a bungee cord squeezing his windpipe shut.” As a character says about himself in “Dreams of You: Chapter Eleven,” these stories will “only make love when it is dark.”

The moods in the final section change unexpectedly, often jarringly, thus earning its title: “Mercurial.” In “Bach’s Little Secret,” the famed composer tells a young organist that his diet is the reason for prolific and consistent creativity. He elaborates:

“Cut out the beef and sauerkraut. Eat more miso soup. Concentrate on green and yellow vegetables. For snacks I recommend fresh carrot juice and gluten-free stollen.”

A more mundane story concludes with a man going to sleep and waking to find that decades have passed, his parents are long dead, and “everything else—all matters of love, hate, and the quiet rituals of life—remained the same.” “Apples, Epees and Dracula” abruptly ends with the hero suffering from a “mortal wound to his belly.”

Like the house in “Did You Recognize Him?” these stories are “awash in an otherworldliness.” Gerke gets a lot right in There’s Something Wrong with Sven—like navigating through absurd detours, like making simple things strange, like having estranged people find their missing piece or start another puzzle, like getting into it, man, you know, like a… like a sex machine… Like inviting all kinds of misfits, nitwits, and twits to the party, like finding the tragic in the comic and vice-versa. Like dreaming out loud.

John Madera is published widely, and his work has recently appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, Opium Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. More from this author →