Are We Not Men ?

Brent Spencer, Author
Brent Spencer, Author Arcade Publishing $21.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-55970-357-4
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
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Reverberating with echoes of Raymond Carver, the 13 stories in Spencer's (The Lost Son) first collection chronicle, with rueful wit and a gritty photo-realism, the anger and loneliness of a mostly blue-collar cast of Midwestern men. These tales of degeneration, decay and emasculation are played out in hospitals, prisons, dive bars and seedy apartments, whose inhabitants, trapped in failing or failed relationships, drink to escape or just to avoid intimacy. The dolefully funny, eponymous, lead story, told in second-person vignettes that resemble cinematic dissolves, describes a man who takes refuge in movies (identifying in particular with the beast-men of the 1932 H.G. Welles adaptation, Island of Lost Souls), while his marriage hits the skids. ""I flunked Prozac,"" laments Ned, the dyspeptic narrator of ""The Last of the Nice,"" who reluctantly enters a men's support group after his wife runs off, but storms out in a fit of anger and self-pity. Anger and frustration in these stories are often diverted and re-expressed in ugly ways, as in ""Haven't You Ever Seen Cary Grant?"" where a college professor exacts a nasty revenge on a recently widowed neighbor who accuses him of stealing car parts. Especially poignant are stories about children who fail to bring parents together, and whose lives are destroyed in the process, as in ""The Small Things that Save Us,"" about a struggling one-armed farmer named Easy, and ""All I Ever Wanted,"" in which the narrator's estranged girlfriend sells her baby to Gypsies. The writing sometimes grows flat and sentimental, but the whole collection possesses a harsh and wrenching agnosticism. ""Despair I can handle,"" says a divorced philosophy professor of a weekend binge with her out-of-town boyfriend in one story. ""It's hope that kills."" (Sept.)
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