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 fuck ten guys a day,” declares Sam the Cat, the boilerplate Klam protagonist. “Iswear. I’d never want to be a girl, though, for they have the worst deal in history.” Sam more confesses than narrates, and his confession has to do with a sudden crush he develops on a man in a rock band. “Iwent home and shut my eyes and tried to sleep, except there was this guy, the guy who looked like a chick, walking around the party in my mind. I watched him walk up to the bartender, Isaw him reach into his front pocket to get money, and Isaw how his round butt stuck out a little—somebody stop me….”
No one does—not even his current girlfriend, who holds the receiver near the grinding Cuisinart when he phones. He gets a makeover at the mall. He shows up at the musician’s door bearing flowers. (The musician turns out to be straight. “Girls—Imean women—it’s a crazy thing,” Sam says wildly to the musician.) However undomesticated, Klam’s narrators seldom put anything forward unapologetically—they apologize compulsively, in virtually every story. “I’m sorry. Why did I say that? Is it too late to take it back?” is practically a refrain. They beg—and amuse—for mercy. They speak like recovering altar boys. “Mother of God, listen to the way I’m talking,” says Sam. Says another narrator, “When I hate Lynn, or when I can’t stand to look at her or be near her, when Ifeel putrid, when I wish God would just erase me, I look at the garden.” Their assaultive imaginations—lunging at love then puzzling over its elusiveness—seldom spare themselves. “Am I a good person or a bad person?” asks one narrator. “I’m not a great person—I know that.” Says another, “I’ll tell you who I should marry: myself.” Their bravado is laughingly gossamer: “I’m a fantastic lover. I’ve got to give me that.”
Sam’s fantasies, of course, are the stuff of childhood. “We could sail around the world together…. The ship would be my kingdom. I’d have a sword and an eye patch, some movies on video belowdecks, for when the wind dies. I’d love the seagoing life.” He remains the eternal boy, his desire incited mostly by thoughts of itself. Note the classic crescendo of neurosis: “I almost want her back. It’s not a joke. I’d do anything to get her back.” Passion is inflated by words; gesture brings momentary conviction. “I’ve had a girlfriend since I was in second grade,” he says, all he knows of love deriving from that time, “and I’ll probably have one until I croak.”
Girlfriends, in Matthew Klam’s world, are the sanctuary from the pursuit of other girlfriends, and erotic farce is his primary focus in the early stories. But what soon emerges to eclipse this as the stories proceed and grow through the collection is Klam’s skillful social satire. His stories, from the second one on, begin to become studies of the toxicity of American affluence. Klam guiltily reviles the rich—they are absurd and repellent and also the only people he knows—and one after another he positions his protagonists as feckless young spies among them. “A lot of people go to Harvard,” he has one narrator say. “Ididn’t.” His world bursts preposterously with plutocrats. There is this from a fellow guest at the Caribbean resort of “The Royal Palms”:
He told me there were guys out there living forty feet up in the trees, pot growers with machine guns who almost shot him but then took him in and befriended him. He said they were the most amiable guys, and he talked with them and smoked pot and sang reggae. They gave him a tour of their jungle hideout. They’d made crude musical instruments out of tin boxes and wire, and they had their feet propped up on crates of ammo. He said, “One of them went to Oxford.”
His characters know the kings of tiny islands off Sri Lanka or call Al Gore “Al.” Says the just barely straight-faced narrator of “Linda’s Daddy’s Loaded,” “We met an interesting group of people when we moved in, all our neighbors who’d built elegant houses out here like ours—the men worked in the city and the women were all psychologists.”
By the end of the book we are, for long stretches, in the grip of strategically piercing and culturally observant work. (The one exception, “There Should Be a Name for It,” a story about an abortion, is the weakest in the collection. The subject is not the right match for Klam’s untethered nuttiness and is a difficult one anyway for the swiftness and antic melancholy of the story form: perhaps only “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927) by Ernest Hemingway and “Day-old Baby Rats” (1972) by the underknown and now deceased New Yorker writer Julie Hayden have done it well.) In “Not This,” Klam’s narrator discovers with alarm that his brother’s newly acquired wealth is from public relations work he does solely for the Mafia. “He wiped his eyes with the palm of his hand and said, ‘But look—they’re gonna make us a pool,’ pointing with the telephone.”
In “The Royal Palms,” the protagonist’s professional life thrives while his marriage falls flat: “We had more money now…, but what were we going to do next? Something was missing. We needed the next phase, and we needed what was missing to get to the next phase.” In “Linda’s Daddy’s Loaded,” the husband says, in perfect Klam rhythm, “We had a glorious yard, a beautiful pool, sliding glass doors leading out to a patio, lawn chairs with pillows, a dog, a special electric fence to keep the dog from running away, a thing on his collar to shock him if he tried, track lighting in the kitchen, a marble pastry block.” It is the dog, glancingly brutalized and tucked between pillows and track lighting, that best typifies not just the skilled comic sequencing of Klam’s writing but its strugglingly moral and socially stunned heart.
All of Klam’s gifts and themes are in symphonic play in the last two stories of the collection, “Issues I Dealt With in Therapy” and “European Wedding.” These are Klam’s longest and most artistically accomplished narratives—if it were not such a spiritual misdescription one might here use the word “mature”—though they emerge naturally from a voice and style established at the book’s start. The breath and skin quality of every girlfriend or wife continues to be noted, clinically, for abnormalities, but his real scrutiny is saved for larger game (social class, ethical identity, the Faustian bargains of the young), and the stories’ erotic matters are wrapped up with ribbons of idiosyncratic uxoriousness. The bitterly but cleverly titled “Issues I Dealt With in Therapy” (there is no therapy session in the story, or even a mention of one) is set on a “preppy East Coast resort island” at the wedding of the narrator’s “incredible friend Bob.”
Bob is an old, formerly progressive pal who studied civil rights law and worked to desegregate a school district in Mississippi. Klam’s nameless narrator, who works “at a nonprofit that attacked the military-industrial complex, but I’ll tell you right now it did nothing,” worships his incredible friend Bob. But then Bob wins a big case. “Soon he was having chats with Janet Reno, riding with her over to Congress…. They had some sticky problems in Immigration and Naturalization: They were trying to figure out how to throw Haitians back in the water. When I phoned him at work he could only whisper.” Bob “had whole families, Rwandans who were here seeking asylum, removed from the homes where relief agencies had put them, shipped back to Africa for sure death.” Afterward Bob became a “‘media catastrophe consultant.’ …He ‘befriended politicians under fire.”’
When asked to toast the groom, Klam’s now unbeguiled narrator begins, “You’ve had a lot of jobs, Bob…. Unfortunately I’m blanking on some of your successes.” The testimonial builds angrily, for several pages, including advice for the bride (“Stand up and start running and never look back”) and may be the funniest wedding toast since the one Robert Cohen wrote in his 1996 novel The Here and Now. “That,” says Klam’s narrator’s girlfriend when he finally sits down, “was a disaster.”
Lest we forget that Klam desperately desires a comedic world, he closes his collection with not one but two weddings. “European Wedding,” the book’s ultimate story, is also the first and only one Klam has written in the third person. This point of view—allowing him the perspectives of three separate characters—serves him well, and he it. Up until this story the book that Sam the Cat may most resemble is Julie Hecht’s amusing Do the Windows Open? (1997), whose stories also appeared in The New Yorker and registered the gender-related vanities and anxieties of East Coast metropolitan society, drawing repeatedly from a single, ongoing personality for its narratives. Hecht created a book-length vocal solo, even though it was a collection, and Klam comes close to doing the same. The third person of his concluding story, however, allows him both more density and more room. It gives him just enough tools to show us the kind of authoritative, vocally limber, and devastating writer he can be.
The aptly, inevitably named Rich is marrying the well-to-do Gynnie at a Loire valley château straight out of a Three Musketeers movie, but first, back home, in his prenuptial ambivalence he contemplates an affair with Nora. “Nora was his only client. Nora’s happiness was his full-time job…. She wasn’t Gynnie…. She was someone else. She could die tomorrow, he didn’t care.” This loveless union is consummated—briefly for Rich, at length for the reader—and the five pages documenting the coupling are one of the few deeply merciless passages in Klam’s book. “Some of her lipstick had come off. She grabbed the back of his head and jacked it toward her. Her own head moved forward steadily—like a shark’s head, like a prosthetic limb, some football wrapped in bologna. She threw her tongue down his throat like a waterlogged sneaker.” The scene continues somewhat pathologically and at length from there. This is not really misogyny (at least I don’t think it is) but panic and loss of appetite served up as dark, sick hilarity: “During the last few moments Rich had begun hoping that a crazy person would break in and beat them to death with the spade beside Nora’s writhing head.” Its gruesomeness casts a deliberate shadow across the entire subsequent story—much like the mammoth hurricane that keeps most of the guests from being able to attend the wedding—and the marriage of Rich and Gynnie that proceeds regardless, in another country entirely, must gather together what few genuine consolations can be fashioned or found.
The story’s other two perspectives belong to Gynnie and to an ominous, dissipated old German friend of her mother’s, Emile Marcus, who comes to the wedding because he has “a real affinity for repulsive American overkill” and, unbeknownst to Gynnie, believes himself to be her biological father. Gynnie herself is one of Klam’s typical young women: too intent on doing good in the world and on losing weight at the same time to screw up the energy to leave Klam’s difficult males. Besides, Klam has made largely sympathetic company of his childish men by making them smart, in both meanings: he inflicts pain on them and makes them bright. And so the night Rich arrives in France and asks, “Why are we doing this?” (meaning unpacking the contents of the suitcases into the dresser), both misunderstanding and understanding all too well, Gynnie sums it up for him:
“Because we’re desperate and we’re lonely and nothing better came along…. You’re all I’ve got now, and you’d better get used to it. We’re on the grown-up train, and we don’t get off until the graveyard.” Rich held up his folded shirts. He said he was talking about the clothes.
For the rest of the story Gynnie attends to a pedicure, throws up her meal, worries about Somalia, and wonders why her mother’s European family had to leave France after the Nazi occupation was over.
Klam’s radar—or perhaps one should say “nose”—is for all that is unclean, especially money. In the end, his book is a reminder that the wealth of the American upper middle class, and the suburban materialism of its lifestyle, is not old news, already sufficiently taken up by literary writers of previous decades. In the excessive ways it is experienced now, American affluence is unprecedented, socially and globally isolating in a manner that is new, overwhelming, and sinister to those looking on. Klam speaks from within this affluent milieu, but in his stories is dividedly looking on, and askance, in the manner of a house guest or an in-law (sometimes his characters are quite literally that), wrestling with his own scathing criticism, his own generation-specific nausea, his own particular patios and poolsides, until politeness can no longer be managed nor righteous rudeness subdued. Throughout his work he steadily reveals his complicated interest in all that revolts—in both senses of the word.
One could argue that the bursts of indignation are too intermittent, their effect somehow decorative, and therefore not finally the strongest current in any of the narratives; the strongest current may simply be a kind of animal desire for peace and sleep (all the characters move in that direction at story’s end, which gussied up can look like forgiveness or benevolence instead of the exhaustion that it is). After all, Klam has brilliantly reminded us all along—from the book’s title forward—that even tucked between pillows and track lights we are nothing but animals. Repeatedly electrocuted by a fence, we will tire and stay in the yard. But only then.