cover image A Ballet of Lepers

A Ballet of Lepers

Leonard Cohen. Grove, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6047-8

The late singer-songwriter and novelist Cohen (Beautiful Losers) leaves readers with an enthralling collection of work written in the 1950s and ’60s, as complex and dark as his lyrics. The unnamed narrator of the title novella is an aimless, solitary 35-year-old Montreal man who leads “an underground existence.” After the narrator learns his grandfather needs a place to live, he takes the older man in. It turns out the grandfather and narrator are ruthlessly violent—in one harrowing scene, the grandfather joins the narrator in beating the narrator’s girlfriend—and the story ends in a stunning reversal. In “O.K. Herb, O.K. Flo,” the narrator muses bitterly on Montreal’s cold surfaces: “All the stone you could want to fool yourself that life is substantial.” The narrator goes to a bar and meets a mediocre jazz player named Herb, who confides he’s going to convince his former lover, Flo, now married, to commit adultery. Herb passes out, leaving the narrator and Flo to discuss the situation. “Polly” follows a junior high girl who orders two younger children to do a variety of demeaning tasks in order for them to hear her play her recorder, such as taking out her trash. Cohen (1934–2016) writes brilliantly of desire and cruelty as his desperate characters yearn for connection. This is magnificent. (Oct.)