“Beware the impractical man,” warns the narrator of the title story of David Galef’s chapbook collection of short and flash fiction: “Their wives either cherish or divorce them, and their sons and daughters, in reaction, often grow commonsensical and a little costive.” That’s funny, but we shouldn’t miss the menacing undercurrent. The unfortunate ideas of Bernardo Lazar – a backyard smelter, a “Reaction Recovery” device, and “a project about giant vegetables” – put his wife and young children through a comic set of trials. So light is Galef’s touch that we hardly notice, until the final sentence, that the Lazar family has come undone.
So go the rest of the stories, hooking us from the outset: “As a souvenir from her stay in Botswana, Mary Edwards brought home a slave” (“Hers”); “I didn’t know whether to bring flowers, which don’t say much to someone from a basic subsistence culture” (“My Date with Neanderthal Woman”); “Pat’s a better man than I am, even though she’s biologically female” (“Going Nowhere”). Galef plays these bizarre situations straight, but nightmares lurk beneath. In “Going Nowhere,” the narrator’s affectless prose winds us from that droll opening to a harrowing conclusion in just a few paragraphs. What begins in comedy ends in the exhaustion of marital ennui and despair: “The trick of marriage isn’t doing it once but again and again. It takes more effort every year. I have nothing to add, only subtract.”
In some of the stories, wit and bite come together in satire. Galef’s final story, “Waste,” is his sharpest. It's a monologue by a convict sentenced to serve the community by cleaning up roadside trash in the summer heat. The convict is an intemperate fellow, and we wonder about his crime. Was it theft, drunk-driving, solicitation, or something even more sinister? He comes clean at the end:
You want to know what I did? I was caught dumping trash, a whole carload of It – all the manuscripts that I received as editor of a magazine called The Maximalist, jettisoned out the window to smack facedown on the pavement or drift sheet by sheet in the backdraft to settle in the roadside weeds. Pages and pages of broken-up couples, dumb male rage, dead animals, senile relatives, trailer park antics, hokey regionalism, instant insanity, and present-tense limbo sent by all of you who never read a lick of literature but figured what the hell. Toss in all those manila SASE’s and castoff copies of journals like Cloned Quarterly and More Stuff, and it can spread over a lot of ground. When the cop cruiser flashed its lights at me, I was still feeling righteous and gave him an earful. I decided to represent myself, but it made for an odd case. Maybe the judge was right. So here I am, picking up your trash.
In other stories, Galef dabbles in metafictional play, winking at the reader out of the text. When Elma, the barfly heroine of “Returns” tries out a line, we’re told not to bother with the flat character who receives it: “‘Living out my days, that’s not enough,’ she remarks to the bartender, whose function in this piece is to be dead.” Yes, acknowledges the narrator, this is all artifice, and now can we dash on with the story? Galef has to be quick, for none of the pieces are longer than six generously spaced pages.
For all the varied terrain of this collection (Galef also covers Plato’s allegory of the cave, the genesis of poetry, and bad novel-writing), what linger are his intimations of dread. Galef returns again and again to the difficulty of intimacy and the twinned impossibilities of solitude and love. In “With,” a one-page flame of a story, Galef takes us through the arc of a middle-aged affair to its inevitable end: “But [Lydia] was preternaturally alert, sensing when the moment had passed even before it arrived. She never thought what she had with Daryl would last.” Fear, suggests the narrator, always stalks emotional freedom: “That old what-iffer, sniffing around the dank clouds of our possibilities. That inveterate duo, love and lack.”
Like Ben Marcus (who blurbed the back cover) and Paul Auster, Galef is testing language and narrative form to illuminate, however tenuously, dark recesses of human experience.