Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Adversity: The Final Frontier an Acclaimed Writer's Short Stories Are a Mixed Bag

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Adversity: The Final Frontier an Acclaimed Writer's Short Stories Are a Mixed Bag

Article excerpt

For the aspiring short-story writer, one assumes few volumes would provide more reassurance than a collection that shows a justifiably acclaimed author's growing pains from uneven early works to masterful later pieces.

That's the evolution on display in "Fresh Complaint: Stories," the first book of stories by Jeffrey Eugenides, author of "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot."

Most of Mr. Eugenides's characters are well-to-do people with varying levels of discontent. The collection begins with the brilliant "Complainers," in which an elderly woman visits an older friend suffering from dementia - "It's not Alzheimer's," the friend says, "but the next one down" - and brings her a present: a 20th anniversary edition of a book they love.

The book was about two Inuit women whose tribe had abandoned them and left them to die. But the women didn't just survive; they persevered and thrived. That's the message the younger friend wishes to impart to her suffering elder.

Among the story's many moving elements is the women's adoption of the rallying cry, "It's hatchet time," a reference to the tool the Indian women used to kill squirrels and ward off hunger. The friends in this story invoke the phrase as a way of encouraging one another to overcome challenges and disappointments.

Most of the characters here struggle to defeat adversity, but, alas, Mr. Eugenides also struggles in the earlier works to achieve his effects. Consider 1995's "Baster," in which a 40-year-old television news producer is content to be unmarried but would like a child.

A friend sends her a recipe of sorts to help her achieve her goals, a recipe that involves the use of the cooking tool.

Much of the prose reads like that of a young author trying too hard to be clever. In a reference to the Gulf War general, Mr. Eugenides writes of the women's difficulty finding worthwhile available men, "Like twin Schwarzkopfs, the two friends noted how the battlefield had changed of late. …

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