One thing that's important to me when I read fiction is the presence of vivid characters. I want my characters to be interesting, complex, sometimes weird, often funny; full of life and sprit and energy. Micah Nathan's new short story collection Jack the Bastard is full of those typess of vivid characters. That means I had a rollicking good time reading it.
This collection contains nine stories, but two of the stories take up roughly two-thirds of the book. "The Mensch," the shorter of that pair of stories, is a delirious take on the story of a Jewish screenwriter who's hired to do revisions to a movie script about a guard at Auschwitz who falls in love with a Jewish woman at the camp. Yeah, the script is horrific and everybody knows it, but every character in this book is thoroughly stuck in their own dysfunctional and weird worlds, living in their peculiar and unique brain space. These men and women are narcissistic and self-deluding and craven. They're also funny and compelling as hell. Is this a horror story or a humor story or both? Whichever; it's thoroughly entertaining.
The shorter stories also feature vivid characters. The architect of "Mr. Todd and the Gibson Girl" seems to walk right out of a Raymond Carver novel, full of vague frustration with his upper-middle-class life as he tries to deal with the chaos and frustration of the aftermath of a major California earthquake.
There's a nice touch of Cheever style diffidence in "As the Old Greeks Would Say," the story of a trust fund kid who flees her smothering life for a bit of freedom in Greece, and the cousin who is hired to chase her there. At the center of this story is a casual commitment that our main characters have to their emotions, a vivid sense of these characters just rolling through their lives aimlessly — a feeling that's both intriguing and strangely horrific to a reader.
Two other stories are more idea-based explorations of identity. "Five Tempered Notes" imagines an American jazz musician who returns home from his club to find his dead body on the floor one day. You can imagine the existential dilemma that evokes in our protagonist. And "Simulacrum" imagines a man who leaves his family but keeps a simulacrum of himself in his place. This story is much more symbolic than its counterpart, a clear meditation on the nature of manhood after a family has been established.
The titular story in this book is the most vivid both in terms of its plot and its characters. "Jack the Bastard" is an often grim, often intense meditation on violence and revenge and history, full of surprisingly complex and odd characters who all seem to have their own agendas. Nathan is very effective at creating fully fledged characters at just a few strokes and creating settings that are remarkably intense. I could practically taste the dust from the Texas plains as I read the early sections of this story, and see these characters clearly in mind's eye as the story progressed on.
Accompanying these stories is a handful of pages of artwork by Phil Noto, Mike Allred, Tradd Moore and Ross Nicholson. You can't quite call these illustrated stories, but the art in them helps to bring the stories to life.
Based on this, I'll want to check out more books by Micah Nathan. I guess that's the highest compliment I can give this book.