Steve Berman,
Second Thoughts: More Queer & Weird Stories
(Lethe Press, 2008)

Second Thoughts is, appropriately enough, Steve Berman's second story collection. It's a wide-ranging group, from a "true story" ("Hidden in Central Asia") to a delightfully surreal riff on laundry commercials ("Always Listen to a Good Pair of Underwear") to a mordantly poetic love story that grows out of an alternate history ("The High Cost for Tamarind"). The stories are without exception well-wrought, fluent gems that reveal Berman's gift for taking absolutely unremarkable situations, little fragments of everyday life, or sometimes bits of popular apocrypha, and twisting them off their path into bizarre and surprising places.

"Kinder," for example, rings a freakish variation on the idea of gingerbread houses and hungry children. "Well Wishing" ties together traveling salesman jokes, complete with seductively available daughter and an even more seductive -- or at least less reticent -- son, and a magical well. The same story reveals another facet of this volume: there is a current of loneliness that surrounds an ongoing theme of loss. Even a story as seemingly straightforward as "Caught by Skin," which takes place in a future where cosmetic surgery is as common, and fashions in faces as widespread, as the latest designer T-shirt is today, Shawn's rebellion is sparked by a sense of longing for something lost.

There is a certain element of revenge here, as well, or at least delight in turning the tables -- call it a form of rebellion, overtly stated in "The High Cost for Tamarind," in which lost love leads to what we would call terrorism, somewhat more subtly posed in "A Troll on a Mountain With a Girl," in which the hero sees past the deception -- a trickster story turned on its head.

My only reservation about the collection is Berman's use of author's notes, some of which do, in fact, offer helpful insights, some of which deserve to be developed into stories in their own right, but some of which offer information that I don't think helps the story at all, and may even take something away from it. The book is dedicated to Michael Carte, Berman's college roommate and obviously a strong romantic interest in his life, who died young in an automobile accident. In the stories that grow out of that relationship, I don't think the notes offer anything to the reader that wouldn't have had more power if the story were allowed to stand alone. (Full disclosure: Berman asked my opinion in general about including these while the book was in preparation; as a rule, I'm against it.)

Don't take that as condemnation. I realize I have my own admittedly strong opinions on this sort of thing, and others may treasure these glimpses into the author's thinking and history. The stories are, with one or two exceptions, strong enough to stand, whether they are surrounded by a metanarrative or not, and in the final analysis, that's what counts.

review by
Robert M. Tilendis

22 November 2008

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