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Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Here's one of those cases where an envelope just shows up at the Labs with something inside, and I didn't ask for it, and I'm not waiting for it, and I don't even know what it is when it arrives, but by the time I've finished with it, it's become something special to me, something beloved, and I'm left changed by my encounter with it.

If there's any kind of sanity or justice on this crazy little sphere, then people in massive quantities will discover David Schickler's KISSING IN MANHATTAN and they'll buy it and they'll fall in love with it and immediately go out and buy extra copies to give to friends, and those friends will be equally smitten, and slowly but surely, people will end up head over heels for this cast of characters and this major new voice in fiction.

The book is slight, unassuming, with a simple, elegant cover: black with the inlaid design of an ornate brass keyhole. It's 274 pages, 11 stories, and at first I thought it was a collection of short fiction. It's actually a tightly-woven story cycle though, all having to do with the inhabitants of The Preemption, an apartment building in New York City. Schickler has an astonishing command of description, and his stories are like x-rays, illuminating every inch of the inner lives of these lonely, eccentric people. In many ways, he brings to mind Salinger in his FRANNY & ZOOEY period or a more precise Tom Wolfe.

I took the book with me on the plane on the way to Florida last week, intending to give one or two of the stories a try and set it aside without guilt if they didn't hold my interest. If you're trying to decide whether or not to purchase the book, I'd suggest finding a quiet corner at your favorite bookstore and reading either "The Opals" or "Serendipity," both of which I found hypnotic, immersive.

Which isn't to say they're the best stories in the collection. They just have an immediate pull, a charge that's hard to deny. The other stories here all have reasons to recommend, and they grow on me as I reflect on them, as I flip through the book now to help me with this review. I find myself going over this passage or that, flipping back for a favorite page, and I'm shocked at how real this world of Schickler's already feels, after just one read. It's been a while since a new reader exhibited this kind of immediate hold on my imagination.

What are the stories about? Well, it's hard to tell you that, exactly. They are each character sketches, first and foremost, but they also revolve around very particular moments, each of the stories packing unexpected narrative punch. He's got a keen sense of timing, and the stories all unfold at the exact right clip. "Checkers and Donna" is about the first date for a pair of people, told primarily from the point of view of Donna. She is underwhelmed by Checkers when she meets him, but as he works on her, the effect is remarkable. "Jacob's Bath" traces the private ritual of a married couple and its effect upon being made public in a newspaper column, and it builds to a great close that turns the story on its ear, drawing a sudden, devastating portrait of what real familial love is. "Fourth Angry Mouse" expands upon the idea of family by exploring what it is that we get from our fathers and grandfathers, what lives on in us, and what is handed down. It also makes some sly, barbed points about celebrity and what people are celebrated for.

Then there's "The Opals." I keep circling this story, thinking that this may be the heart of the book. It's certainly the moment when the smile spread over my face, that amazed grin that prompted the girl next to me on the flight to ask what I was reading. Here's where Schickler introduces us to James Branch:

"James was twenty-five, single and shy, with sleepy blue eyes and straight teeth. He worked as an accountant on Wall Street and he lived in the Preemption apartment building. Every evening after work, before taking the train north, James caught a cab to Flat Michael's, an East Village restaurant where he ate dishes called Bison, or Snipe, or the chef's specialty, a strange concoction known simply as Vittles."

On one particular night, James arrives to Flat Michael's a little late, and finds a one-hour wait at the door, even for a regular like him. He puts his name in at the door, then goes for a walk in the neighborhood, leading him to a discovery that is too wonderful to ruin here involving a pair of opal earrings.

"All the next day James pondered what had happened. He brought the opals to work with him, took they slyly from his pocket, gazed at them during lunch. But he showed them to nobody and told nobody about them. He suspected that the manner in which the opals had come to him and the man who'd delivered them were powerfully inscrutable. He'd heard a story once about a hiker on some mountain who'd been struck by lightning from the only cloud in an otherwise blue sky. The man survived, having felt only a momentary sizzle in his brain and his toes. James felt like that man. He worried that if he spoke of the opals or showed them around to just anybody, they might vaporize in his hand."

That story leads almost directly into the next, "Kissing In Manhattan," which focuses on Rally McWilliams, a travel writer living in SoHo. She comes into contact with Patrick Rigg, the mysterious roommate of James Branch. Her take on things gives way to "Duty," told in first person from the perspective of Patrick Rigg, a thirty-three year old man who is a millionaire because "when I was six, my older brother Francis Rigg was killed unexpectedly by Guppy The Wonder Fish." What starts out as absurdly funny becomes very sad, then unsettling in the span of a mere eighteen pages, and Schickler handles the shift in tones masterfully.

"The Smoker" was the first piece of this book to be published, having appeared in a slightly different form in THE NEW YORKER. It's got the same comic sensibility as David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST, but without all the jokey, postmodern clutter than always diffuses Wallace's wit. In this case, Schickler does a wicked job dissecting Douglas Kerchek, the twelfth grade AP English teacher at St. Agnes High School. He's a solitary man who has convinced himself that he's not lonely, and when he finds himself under the microscope of Nicole Bonner, the smartest girl in his class, he learns that he may be fooling himself. Nicole and her parents are forceful eccentrics that should delight anyone who loves the work of Wes Anderson. Something about the tone here suggested Anderson's particular droll rhythms. "The Smoker" really is quite remarkable, and it's easy to see why it led to wider recognition for Schickel. It's a classic short story in any sense of the word, and manages to entertain and move in equal measure.

"Serendipity" may be the most wicked of the stories in the collection, wildly funny and very raunchy. It's the most naked (pun intended) picture Schickel paints of the dance men and women do, and he's boiled it down to a primal, unforgettable confrontation through a closed apartment door. The punchline of this story is so great that I backed up and read the last two pages of the story a second time, just so I could experience it a second time. And, no, it has nothing to do with the upcoming John Cusack film. Nothing at all.

The last three stories in the book could almost be taken as a novella in three movements. They're closely related, and they bring the distinctly separate stories of James Branch and Patrick Rigg to one magnificent conclusion, building slowly. "Telling It All To Otis" brings James and Rally together as a couple, and the way Schickel stacks the detail up makes you root for this couple. They earn each other, and they earn us. They manage to build something real in the middle of the house of mirrors that Rigg has set up for the holidays as the year 2000 comes to a close. The simple honesty of what grows between James and Rally drives Patrick into a frightening depression that is explored in "In Black," using the life of Father Thomas Merchant as an unexpected window into the darkness that Patrick carries in his heart. For the second time, the supernatural makes the slightest of intrusions into the world of the Preemption, and Schickel has just the right touch with this stuff. He's like a slightly more grounded Richard Matheson in these moments, refusing to let it be fantasy, but refusing to play by the rules that reality insists upon.

"The Green Balloon" seems at first to be almost an anti-climax. Things feel preordained, like they have to play out a certain way, and that sense of surprise that drives the rest of the book is somehow lacking. But it's not surprise or shock that Schickel is after with this final story. Instead, it's peace, resolution, the one thing that we haven't been given yet. For the first time, Schickel finishes a thought, finishes a whole string of them, and all these narrative threads come together in one messy tangle. In sorting them out, Schickel finds each grace note, and the ending is a single perfect shot of ice right to the heart, woundingly beautiful.

Do yourself the favor. Stop bitching at me about the films this summer. Go to the book store. Find this book. Heal yourself a little, and let a marvelous new storyteller remind you of the simple power of a well-turned phrase.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • June 14, 2001, 7:48 a.m. CST


    by Jack Diamond

    seems fun

  • June 14, 2001, 7:49 a.m. CST

    Another great review, Mori...

    by Imokliel

    But, and not to be bitching here, this is not a book review site. I just think that you do well enough with your movie reviews, that you should stick to those. But, whatever floats your boat.

  • June 14, 2001, 8:53 a.m. CST

    Mr. Beller's neighborhood....

    by Imokliel

    That's kind of unsettling, as my name is Mr. Beller. What is this neighborhood of mine that you have stumbled upon - seriously?

  • June 14, 2001, 9:23 a.m. CST

    Keep on bitching!!!!

    by Blacket-Man

    Hey 11 short stories packed in to only 274 pages. Sounds like a great read; leaving plenty of time to keep bitching about this shitty ass summer for movies. Thanx for the heads up.

  • June 14, 2001, 9:30 a.m. CST

    Also check out...

    by Blacket-Man

    A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (Vintage International) -- Julian Barnes

  • June 14, 2001, 10:12 a.m. CST

    Reveiws that make it worth it.

    by TectorGorch

    Please. Please. Please keep reviewing books here. I love these book reviews they are why I keep coming back.

  • June 14, 2001, 2:18 p.m. CST

    Thanks for the heads up, but two questions

    by All Thumbs

    1. Is this out in stores yet? 2. Why don't you review books more often? Yes, I know this is a movie site, but I did mean movie-centric books (although now you have me wanted to get my hands on these stories). I remember your review of some from a LONG time ago...would love to see that again.

  • June 14, 2001, 10:41 p.m. CST

    Just finished it, and DAMN IT'S GOOD!

    by CK Dexter Haven

    I just finished this thing. The good buzz was making me crazy to read it, so I bought it on the way home from the orofice. My only advice is RUN--DON'T WALK--to the bookstore and get this thing immediately. It's just amazing. If you halfway like books, it will make you do a happy dance. They're discussing it on one of my favorite booksites,

  • June 15, 2001, 12:24 a.m. CST

    Robert Bingham

    by EddieDane

    If you like this book, check out Pure Slaughter Value and Lightning On The Sun by Robert Bingham. If this writer Mori's talking about is the Tom Wolfe of angst-filled New Yorkers, then Bingham was their Robert Stone, I say "was" because he OD'd on heroin a few years back. Check these books out. You'll thank me when it's over.

  • June 15, 2001, 8:16 a.m. CST

    Good News? Depending on Perspective.

    by TectorGorch

    This might be a decent place to drop a tidbit of news I picked up, the readers here being what and who they are. While the film version of "On the Road"(unfilmmable) is aparently going to be directed by schlockmeister Shumacher the script has been written by novelist Russell Banks(A far better writer than Kuroac). While I still don't think the project is even necessary this does make it more interesting.

  • July 5, 2001, 2:11 p.m. CST

    RE: Another "Kissing in Manhattan" fan

    by meggy978

    Moriarty, I couldn't agree with you more! This book is great to read intermittently since each of the stories are only about 25 pages each. The characters are really interesting and as you're reading the book, there are little details in each chapter that refer back to one of the other chapters. For instance, Nicole Bonner (The Smoker) is wearing the silver bracelet with jade dolphins that James Branch sees at John Castle's Nomadic (The Opals). Post any other references you can find!