Benjamin Cavell, Author . Knopf $22 (208p) ISBN 978-0-375-41464-0

"I am the uncontested star of what is generally acknowledged to be the fourth-best paintball team in the tristate area," declares the narrator of "Balls, Balls, Balls," one of the nine stories in Cavell's forceful debut collection. The narrator is a body builder and boorish slacker who works in a sporting goods store, has violent fantasies of murder and combat and is plagued by sexual anxiety. "Sometimes I even wonder whether I am really as good as I think, whether all the sluts who have screamed my name and begged for more, more, more weren't in it for the sex but were trying to attach themselves to my rising star." Like a number of other Cavell characters, who exemplify various species and dilemmas of American manhood, he manages to be funny, pitiful and chilling at the same time. In "All the Nights in the World," a mild-mannered college kid introduces his girlfriend to his blowhard father, a vaguely embittered former star athlete. "Killing Time" is about the tension between a champion boxer and his sparring partner, an inferior fighter eclipsed by the other's celebrity. In "The Ropes," the narrator, a college boxer grievously injured in a fight, recuperates at the house of his father, a retired pro fighter who lives on Martha's Vineyard. The narrator asks his father why he never came to watch him fight. "I don't need to watch my son try to be a thug," his father replies. From the paranoid, obsessive-compulsive insurance claims adjuster in "The Death of Cool" to the rookie congressman running for re-election in "The Art of the Possible" who exudes a studied emotional numbness ("Passion Is Too Mussolini"), Cavell's characters bluster and banter with all their might to cover up for their disappointment and bewilderment. Though Cavell occasionally comes on too strong, the collection is filled with dead-on, often hilarious dialogue and offers a thoughtful meditation on masculinity and class. Think George Saunders and Matthew Klam. (May 27)

Reviewed on: 04/28/2003
Release date: 05/01/2003
Paperback - 208 pages - 978-1-4000-3035-4
Open Ebook - 165 pages - 978-0-307-42753-3
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