cover image The Pure Product

The Pure Product

John Kessel. Tor Books, $24.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86117-9

Among the 16 stories--plus two poems and a play--that Kessel (Corrupting Dr. Nice) includes in this volume are hardboiled detective yarns (albeit with time machines), literary satires and inventive spinoffs (of Swift, Marlowe and Melville), intense Borgesian allegories and plain whimsical flights. Kessel is our American Brian Aldiss, capable of the most artful and rigorous literary composition, but with a mischievous genius that inclines him toward speculative fiction. And American he is, fascinated by cars, baseball, highways, upstate New York and Hollywood. Some of his stories are imaginative but scrupulously researched investigations of historical subject matter. ""Invaders,"" for instance, is an ingenious triple story that finds parallels between Pizarro's bloody conquest of Peru, a future alien invasion of Earth and the Pax Americana of our own time. Kessel, who has won most of the prizes an SF writer can win, is at home in ambiguity; he writes with subtlety and great wit. Some of the stories exhibit occupational excesses of the genre: an occasional tendency to reel out ideas in scenario form without realizing them as living events, lapses into philosophical monologues that fail to do quite what they are supposed to, ersatz endings that betray an overweening eagerness to get an exciting idea across. But Kessel's ideas are exciting, and his craftsmanship is frequently absolutely brilliant. Plus, his sense of comedy is remarkable--as in this book's ""Faustfeathers,"" a version of Faust in which the Marx Brothers play the leads, and in which Kessel gets each brother perfectly, hilariously right. (Dec.)