The KGB Bar Reader

Columbia admissions officer encounters a grad school applicant with the same name as her dead high school heartbreaker. A promiscuous Catholic-school girl lurches through the emptiness of her upper-middle-class world, and stumbles into a tender moment with Mom amid the absurdity of a Madison Square Garden dog show. Upon learning that his estranged friend is a hotshot record producer, a hapless guitar player­janitor pays a surprise visit, bearing a gift: a fish he caught in the East River.

So it goes in stories by Helen Schulman, Elissa Schappell, and Jennifer Egan collected in The KGB Bar Reader, an anthology of works presented at the weekly Downtown reading series known for embracing experimentation and launching careers. Like the uneven lineup at the KGB series itself, the Reader spans literary caverns, cutting a path that links celebrities with struggling unknowns: from established writers like Rick Moody, A.M. Homes, and Junot Díaz to unpublished (and sometimes untalented) young scribes. If anything links these stories together, it is New York. Even the works set in other locales--like Sheila Kohler's beguiling ''Cracks,'' which tells of illicit lust at a boarding school in an unnamed former British colony--function as vacations, transporting us wistfully to exotic lands that we experience nevertheless with a New York sensibility, then yanking us back to the city's familiar yet singular landscapes.

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The KGB Bar Reader
Edited by Ken Foster
Quill, 321 pp., $14 paper
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The Reader has numerous standouts, including Steven Rinehart's ''Make Me,'' the creepy and mesmerizing story of two high school teachers and former lovers who cross dangerous emotional and physical boundaries with two students. (Why is it that the most resonant pieces here are those that deal with misuse of authority and sex with minors?) And the texture of each selection is so unlike the one before that even the weaker entries don't detract from the satisfying balance of the book as a whole.

 
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