Before Robert Gottlieb became editor of The New Yorker for a brief five-year term (from 1987 to 1992), the fiction printed in the magazine was famous (among those associated with smaller literary magazines) for its squeamish gentility. No body fluids, sounds, or smells were permitted in its pages. Other banished and corrupting vulgarities included the word “wig” (instead of “hairpiece”) as well as the barbarism “yellow light” (one was required to say “amber light” when writing of a traffic signal).
Of the several young fiction writers who came speeding headlong through the amber light of Mr. Gottlieb’s interregnum, no one seemed more provocatively expressive of current American vernacular (in its white male form) than the then twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Klam. The narrative voice of “Sam the Cat,” his first of seven stories to be published in The New Yorker, was so alarmingly, vitally full of forbidden utterance that it seemed to set the pages of the magazine on fire. “The downstairs smelled like cat piss,” that first story read, worrying the line between candor and scatology. “Skippy’s litter box was like an overflowing minefield.” If its youthful antiheroics and attention to style and myth made it seem quite a legitimate descendant of John Updike’s renowned “A&P,” the helpless prurience and bumbling belligerence of its voice owed something to the theatrical monologues of Lenny Bruce and Spalding Gray. “You walk into a supermarket or a restaurant, your girlfriend goes in first and you’re looking at her ass. And you say to yourself, ‘Isn’t that the most beautiful ass? That’s mine. It’s beautiful.’ Like it’s going to save you. An ass isn’t going to save you. What’s it going to do? Hide you from the police?” The story was greeted at the time with dismay, shock, and delight—sometimes simultaneously in a single reader.
How interesting to reread it now, these nine years later, as the title story of Mr. Klam’s long-awaited first collection: its lunacies no longer shock. Of course, one should hardly need reminding that timing and context are everything where provocative art is concerned: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was shocking when it first appeared in 1969, no longer shocking in the 1970s, then shocking again in 1990 (I taught it that year to students, many raised on women’s studies curricula, who were taken aback in a manner few students in the 1970s would have been). Meanwhile, in the year 2000, what opens up before the reader of Matthew Klam, once the transgressive effects of his fiction soften or are no longer experienced at all, are the enduring comedy and essential sweetness of his work. He is mostly too interested in confusion to be brutal. “I try to laugh as much as possible,” says one narrator. He does not traffic much in sustained fury or hate—a difficult accomplishment for comic writers—and is, oddly, frequently interested in justice. “If I were a girl I’d …
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