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Are Creative Types Inherently Wicked? Ask Tom Bissell.

And Other Stories
By Tom Bissell

The first story in Tom Bissell’s new collection begins, like many of them, as cold satire, with an unnamed American woman watching her new husband devour an elegant lunch in Rome. “The man put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a 12-year-old,” she notes. He’s intelligent, funny, but also physically unpleasant and somehow both juvenile and pedantic at the same time. The problem is they’ve just gotten married and they’re expecting a baby. They’ve been fighting over her desire for the child to have an emotional connection to her Judaism, which is secular and hazy, and when she tells her gentile husband this for the first time, he laughs, “once and loudly, like a king at some forced merriment.”

I thought: I recognize this type of person. But I also thought: After all the Philip Roth novels in this world, why am I reading this particular story now? Not long ago I evacuated my home because of Hurricane Ida while the Delta variant ran rampant, as if we’d returned right back to the beginning of Covid time, violent time, dead time, and the story’s moves felt to me vaguely of another era, though I found I could still enjoy its virtuosity and laugh at its jokes.

But the piece had more in mind than I knew. The husband is so strident in his atheism that he makes you want to go out and find religion, and in a peculiar way the narrative itself enacts this desire. It zooms out in the end to a kind of cosmic distance on the couple, as the unnamed woman, following her unnamed husband out of a Roman synagogue where he has done something unforgivable, notices how quiet it is: “And she knew this, this sound, this sound of hope collapsing, of separate divinities forming, of exclusion, of closed doors, of one story’s end.” I did not expect to arrive at this moment — it wasn’t until the last sentence that the story revealed what it intended all along.

The next, “My Interview With the Avenger,” surprised me in a similar way. It seemed at first too much like a comic sketch, a parody of an Esquire profile (albeit a funny and note-perfect one), and it was also about a superhero, the titular Avenger, which for me is basically kryptonite. But the story is set in 2007, at the end of the Bush years, and the narrator has an ax to grind from the beginning: He wants us to know that the Avenger is not a hero but a vigilante. The Avenger is shown to be part of a subculture of self-appointed public saviors with names like Terrifica or Polar Man, whose “Lycra often poorly contains their girth.” The United States has of course produced a host of less flamboyant real-life variants of these adventurers — Bissell himself invokes Bernard Goetz — and as I was presented with a litany of these dumb, costumed, well-equipped men, I began to think not only of Goetz but of Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” then George Bush in his leather flight jacket, and then even the Q Shaman and his co-insurrectionists, right down to the Avenger’s utility belt with its “pellets of tear gas, smoke bombs, a supply of plastic zip ties.” These connections are not as tenuous as they may sound, for the portrait of the Avenger grows darker as the story continues, the masked hero less ridiculous and more suggestive, more insinuating, until even the sardonic narrator sees in him something like his own troubling reflection.

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