Thomas Beller’s second book of short stories is a monument of displaced solipsism. Beller’s third-person narrator generally tries to make the most sympathetic case possible for his protagonist, Alex Fader—the hero of some stories in Beller’s previous book, Seduction Theory, and a self-absorbed schmuck who generally has no time for anyone he doesn’t lust after. Occasionally, the narration shifts to dictating other characters’ perspectives, just to illustrate how vapid and generally un-Alex-like they are, or to indicate that they’re thinking about Alex. This kind of partisan omniscience is sometimes an effective way of messing with readerly sympathies, particularly in “Vas Is Dat?,” the most striking story here, in which the narrative voice tracks what’s happening in Alex’s head as he tries to coerce his senile aunt’s maid into a blow job.
The Sleep-Over Artist follows Alex from the age of six to 30, as he passes in and out of various uncomfortable upper-class social situations and women’s beds, never quite fitting in anywhere. It would be nice to imagine that the book’s passages of shockingly flat-footed writing (“in a flash he apprehended her . . . as a woman, a vulnerable and quite sexy woman”) are meant to echo Alex’s social awkwardness. As Beller’s tone vacillates between halfhearted wisecracking and ostentatious rhetoric, however, that gets harder to believe.
Beller’s specialty is the telling anecdote or snatch of dialogue: a stack of Great Jews in Sports books doled out for bar mitzvahs, a pot-dealing Yippie offering Alex a lime rickey (“it keeps the blood sugar up”). The post-failed-kiss small talk of “Personal Style” is pitch-perfect. But he nests his anecdotes inside one another until they threaten to tip over, and there’s barely a small, resonant observation of detail in the book that’s not burdened with an explanation of exactly what it means and what his characters are feeling. When Alex, coming home late, exchanges nervous banter with his early-rising mother, Beller portentously notes that “they both laughed with the peculiar camaraderie of a night watchman turning over the shift to the day watchman, with the tacit understanding that what they were guarding was each other.” On every other page, he breaks the momentum by spelling out for us what we already know.