It was about this time last year that Adams Ross’s debut novel, “Mr. Peanut,” was garnering one stellar review after another. The praise was deserved. The novel reportedly took a decade to write, and though you occasionally could feel the labor — there were some construction problems I don’t think the author ever quite solved, and the resolution seemed overly clever — “Mr. Peanut” had long stretches of tour de force writing, not to mention countless wincing observations about contemporary marriage. And it was a mystery. It was a wildly ambitious undertaking, as if Mr. Ross set out to write the Holy Grail of Did-He-or-Did-He-Not-Kill-His-Wife tales and mostly succeeded.
“Ladies and Gentlemen”
A year later Mr. Ross is back with a collection of short stories titled “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Presumably written during the author’s interludes with “Mr. Peanut,” this collection is a more modest affirmation of his talents. If there is not a stinker in the bunch, there is not one that feels essential either. Still, the eight stories do cover quite a swath of contemporary experience and, read closely, do seem to define a new kind of 21st-century character: mostly decent, if frustrated, individuals fraught with a sense of entitlement and possessed with a willingness to do whatever it takes. Sounds like America to me.
The story “In the Basement,” for example, features a character speaking of a friend’s boyfriend: “One afternoon, after he ran out of fellowship money, he snuck over to her apartment, stole a credit card application from the mail, and applied for it under her name. He used this card to fund his life for the next several months, running Maria into enormous debt.”
In “Futures,” a troubled young man decides that a life in the military is the answer to his problems, but only after helping himself to a stash of money from a neighbor’s apartment. He leaves a note to his victim: “Applelow, I promise I will pay you back with interest a thousand times once I learn my way around.” No matter that this was the last of the unemployed Applelow’s savings, and that he had taken the young man under his wing to try and help him.
Or, most dramatically, in the noir-tinged Cain and Abel tale “When in Rome.” Here a narrator repeatedly comes to the rescue of Kevin, his feckless and selfish brother, only to find himself embroiled in a series of troublesome situations, each more legally compromising and potentially violent than the next. Finally one night they are robbed at gunpoint on the streets of New York; the narrator watches helplessly as Kevin gets pistol-whipped and has to cough up the night’s cash receipts from a busy restaurant he is managing. The police arrive but the thief has fled. After the brothers part the narrator decides that his brother is too bloody and should go to the hospital. He heads back to Kevin’s apartment, only to find the thief there and the pile of money on the table. The robbery was staged.
In the end, it seems that only women can mitigate Mr. Ross’s dim view of humanity. The collection’s finale, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” is the only story told from a woman’s perspective. Perhaps uncoincidentally, it is also the most generous. Sara is a burned-out working mother contemplating having an affair. In fact she is on a plane headed for Los Angeles to meet her potential lover. During the flight she begins a dialogue with the man sitting next to her, a divorced screenwriter whose offhanded wisdom dissuades her from her rendezvous.
“It’s been my experience that only two kinds of men succeed with women,” he tells the story’s heroine, “those who hate them, and those who love them.” Speaking of his first marriage, the man says, “I’ll tell you what: the moment I slept with this other woman, I knew my marriage was over.” Though the ending is ambiguous, we sense these words resonate for Sara, and that she is not ready to let go of her own marriage.
It’s one of the book’s nicer moments. And it’s a reminder that as adept as he is in many of these noir tales, it is the relationship between men and women that seems to fascinate Mr. Ross the most, and which brings out the best in his writing. “What’s clear to me is that it’s easier to understand what makes two people let go than what keeps them together,” says a character from “In the Basement,” which is another fine story about marriage.
I suspect we will hear more in the future on this subject from Mr. Ross, and it will be something to look forward to. In the meantime we have “Ladies and Gentlemen,” a solid collection from a more than solid writer.
Adam Ross is a regular summertime visitor to East Hampton, where his parents have a house.
Kurt Wenzel is the author of the novels “Lit Life,” “Gotham Tragic,” and “Exposure.” He lives in Springs.