What He’s Poised to Do

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A new collection of stories by New Yorker staff writer Ben Greenman moves from Chicago to North Africa to… the moon.

The first time I encountered Ben Greenman was at a reading for Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish, an anthology published by Heeb magazine. Greenman delivered a slide-show featuring the exact same image of Bigfoot—over and over again. He augmented this with a series of one-liners about Bigfoot’s life, changing the slide only to reveal the same image every time, a stand-in for whatever metaphor the audience was brave enough to insert. I came away with the impression that Greenman was likely to a be a one-joke sort of guy, and I assumed his other work was likely to be a similar McSweeney’s-ready mash-up of highbrow/lowbrow material. I was wrong.

With the release of his new story collection, What He’s Poised to Do, Greenman demonstrates a whole bucket of literary variety. The theme of letter-writing pervades this collection, but the stories themselves couldn’t be more different. The first story, “Hope,” channels Raymond Carver, with aggressively readable, deceptively simple prose. Some works of short fiction are like taking a trip up a flight of stairs while blindfolded. Other great stories careen towards an inevitable last line, one which a reader should see coming but doesn’t. “Hope” is the latter, setting up certain themes that recur throughout the collection. “Barn,” a story of a love triangle set in rural Nebraska, pivots on the moments a particular scarf finds itself in the air, a feat rendered with delicate and tragic imagery reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill, in which Greenman writes convincingly from the first-person point of view of a female narrator.

The stories and letters move from Chicago in 1989 to North Africa in 1851 to the moon. In “Seventeen Ways to Get a Load of That,” Greenman does what Ray Bradbury did in The Martian Chronicles: depicts a human settlement on another planet that is no different than a town on Earth. With their small fence and broken home, the family that lives on the moon in this story is easily Greenman’s most human. The protagonist eventually moves away, and takes up residence on Earth. “My girlfriend had never been to the moon,” he writes when the time comes to bring her home to the family.

In “The Hunter and the Hunted,” a series of letters reveals some pretty serious infidelity. Greenman does a great job of allowing the reader to understand him. Towards the end of the story, when the man has resolved to end the affair, we are treated to this line: “I was feeling maturity.”

I was feeling maturity! This one line simultaneously demonstrates the character’s brutal honesty and his self-deception. It works perfectly as the best fiction does, to remove the masks of ego and let us see the really scary stuff of the human psyche. Greenman’s characters do this constantly—though just as often the faces underneath are eerily similar to the mask just removed.

Ryan Britt's writing has appeared with Nerve.com and Clarkesworld Magazine, and is forthcoming in Opium Magazine.  He frequently performs stories on stage in NYC with The Liar Show and Stripped Stories. More from this author →