The brief unresolved narratives of Adam Ross’s new short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, show regular people with compelling problems.
Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross’s outstanding first novel, was at surface level a murder mystery, but ended up raising difficult, crucial questions along the way about marriage, codependence, and morality. Some critics have called Mr. Peanut a whodunit, and though it is that, the simplification ignores the book’s controversial suggestions about men and women.
The same oversimplification might be made of Ross’s new short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen. The seven stories in the book are, for the most part, slices of life. They tell imaginative brief tales—infused with vivid dialogue and perfect characterization—that usually end without any resolution, though rarely is that frustrating. In this way Ross is closer, as a short-story writer, to Raymond Carver or James Salter than to Jhumpa Lahiri or James Joyce. These aren’t lengthy sagas that span entire lifetimes or chronicle the collapse of a marriage but quick vignettes that look easier to pull off than they are. In fact, perhaps more than any other influence, Ross is working in the tradition of a story master like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who penned tales that were short but haunting. Like Mr. Peanut, they explore much more than the basic surface level plot.
The stories in Ladies and Gentlemen vary greatly in their subjects but are connected in that all of them center on what Ross mastered in Mr. Peanut: human relationships. In “Futures,” which decisively encapsulates the malaise of the struggling economy, an out-of-work everyman forms a mentoring relationship with the rebellious son of his next-door neighbor. But neither the new friendship, nor the interview process for a job he had been going for, end well for the man. It’s unclear what will happen next in his life, but we move on to the next story. In “The Rest of It,” a divorced professor listens with passive interest to the wild, far-fetched stories of an old janitor who takes a liking to him. He only half-believes most of them until he hears one that sounds very real indeed and may have dangerous implications. The story ends with the professor sitting in traffic; it’s unclear what he’ll choose to do.
This is how these stories go—each one places you quickly in a world, typically one character’s, until it’s time to go. Only with “The Rest of It” is the unresolved ending a bit aggravating; otherwise, the stories leave just enough unanswered to have us wondering, marveling. Arguably, this is what some of the best short stories do: sketch out a scene or relationship and then depart it, leaving the reader to imagine its continuation.
Ladies and Gentlemen is not a linked collection (such books, like Olive Kitteridge, have been in vogue recently) and is all the better for it. Instead of reappearing characters, the connector of these stories is the author’s strong, likeable voice, which remains apparent from story to story, in both third- and first-person narration. It’s a voice that favors crisp banter, brutal honesty, and often, morbidity (see: Mr. Peanut). Ross also embraces, “write what you know.” In many of the stories, his personal background peeks through. “In the Basement” and “Ladies and Gentlemen” both take place in Nashville, where Ross now lives. “Middleman,” the strongest story in the collection, involves two boys at Trinity, the private high school in Manhattan where Ross himself went. The story, ostensibly about Jacob Rose and his crush on his friend’s older sister, becomes a moving discussion about Judaism between father and son. Ross, like Jacob, is half-Jewish. Jacob’s questions about his identity are prompted by his friend’s cruel comment, “Rose, you’re such a kike piece of shit. Do me a favor and stay away from [my sister].”
In Ladies and Gentlemen, the people are regular, but have compelling problems. Often, the struggles are universal, but at other times they are wholly unique. Thane, the professor in “The Rest of It” still misses his ex-wife and has moved into the house of two colleagues while they are away on sabbatical. Their dog came with the house, too. The story begins at the school, but halfway through, Ross uses one description to perfectly capture the isolation Thane feels as he housesits and the bad attitude he has developed: “Once [the dog] appeared on the porch with a cow’s skull in his mouth, the prize still webbed with purple muscle and blood, and when Thane tried to take it away, the dog bit him on the hand. Thane went berserk, kicking Seamus right off the porch… Since that afternoon, he never once let him inside.”
The couple of “In the Basement” shares a story about how they witnessed a college friend change completely, almost spookily, once she got married and had kids. (They tell the story to another couple in a scene that has to have been influenced by Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”) Their anecdote involves another mistreated dog, which is a plot device Ross also used well in Mr. Peanut. The protagonist of “When in Rome” has to deal with his screw-up brother, who has nursed drug addiction and alienated his loved ones. The narrator of “The Suicide Room” witnessed a harrowing accident during college. And the woman in the title story, which is also the last story in the collection and the only one from the perspective of a woman, is struggling with her marriage and debating an affair with an old flame.
These may sound like mundane issues, but Ross treats them with such respect and attention that they become gripping and important. He doesn’t tell the reader anything extra or unnecessary, which is not to say he’s a minimalist writer. He writes vividly, usually in third-person, giving a fair amount of characters’ internal emotions. And though all of these stories are very serious, Ross has a terrific sense of dark humor. In “The Suicide Room” a college kid tells his friends, as they sit around smoking a joint, about the time he found his cigar-smoking grandfather on fire, had to put the fire out, and how the grandfather died a few days later. They are impressed with him, but he tells the reader: “I was lying through my teeth, of course. My grandfather loved golf but hated cigars, and he was still very much alive.”
Ladies and Gentlemen accomplishes a lot in a short space. It’s a collection that many will whip through in four days but is worth enjoying again.