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It has to be said that it is no great surprise that the two other reviews of this book here on dooyoo are varying between really quite good and really poor in their verdicts. For the collection looked at is very similar, with some flashes of really great and witty writing, with a lot that rather disappoints.
It is also no great surprise that Ethan Coen managed a book of short stories. Several people have managed to transcend the celebrity book format and written proper literature - Ethan Hawke, Steve Martin (at least twice)... the jury might still be out on Tom Baker, though. Coen and his brother have written several movies, and got Oscar nominations and so on galore for their efforts, which have a standard black humour, fascination with death and violence, and quirky characters galore. These stories heighten that with barely an exception.
What may in fact come as a surprise is that to read the contents of Gates of Eden is to find yourself reading three short radio plays as well - spaced out with just character name, sound effects and dialogue. The first of the three is best - Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator (being both title and main character) looks at a disputed will that may be helping out shady moneymen behind a dodgy charity. Also very humorous, and with great read-aloud qualities is the second, which features a whole daisy chain of possibly inept crooks, all with their phones tapped - unaware crims use tapped phones to ring others up and say hear about X? His phone must have been bugged and such like, only for the next scene to be two mothers complaining they cant visit the same baddies where theyre currently in hiding, as theyve been found out...
To make a good radio-play youve got to have a good ear for dialogue, and if proof of the success of that here is needed, then the very first story is the pudding. A great little tale of a Joe Schmoe who is a complete disaster both in the boxing ring and in the world of enemy-crossing gangsters he falls into. Also cyclical, it provides some good lines (his nose was a spongy thing such as you might use to wash dishes) and some superbly characterised dialogue with the hoodlum accents coming across perfectly.
If true comedic value should be of interest, Cosa Minapolidan may be the highlight. This is the tale of a family so small and out-of-sorts they move to Minneapolis (thinking it an American Napoli) and trying to ride a non-existent crime wave. They try and set up a protection racket, with nobody needing any protection from anyone, so they go about shooting the only person in town who would ever conceivably be shot, and leaving no evidence of it being a gangster hit at all. It opens with a trainee having to be taught to act menacing, and continues past a major problem for the gang - they decide they need a homosexual to murder as revenge. But this being such a straight-laced town, there arent any they know of, so have to order out...
Breaking away from the sit-com style of that, we have the different styles of story to mention - first and third person. One of the better efforts is in the voice of a record label exec who has been the victim of a most peculiar crime, trying to list to a copper his suspects... and keep the list to one side of A3 by the sound of it... Later on we have the voice of a weights-and-measures enforcement officer, featuring in a very fanciful encounter with a young east Asian lovely, which is not what it seems - again, not a surprise.
What is also not a surprise is that the Coens are Jewish, and this heritage is brought up in several of the stories, which unfortunately are not the best. The Old Country wends its way between many events and characters in a friendly anecdote way to get to the crux, a rebellious boy getting his comeuppance and turning into Mister Grade-A Student overnight. At the opposite end of the book, I Killed Phil Shapiro has as narrator a man who goes to great lengths to repeat that fact, but refuses to stop with the anecdotage. Vaguely funny it may be, possibly (probably?) based on real-life childhood it may be, but this one particularly features too many Yiddish cultural references for our Goyim ears to understand much of it, unfortunately. Still, oy vey.
Other stories go further to mix small time life into the proceedings, from slightly surreal children and their father on a failed day trip, to a tale of fatal affairs related by a character in a bar who has a surprising knowledge of the attributes of the women concerned. Okay, the former has more recognisable detail, but the merits of the stories here are the comedic details, the mix of wacky characters and their brilliantly-put across verbal tics and accents, and the bizarre ways crimes like taking your wifes head off and so on mix with common or garden people.
There are demerits as well, which brings us on to further non-surprises. There are too many examples of the ends of stories not being up to the scratch of the rest - the one with the Japanese femme fatale being the guiltiest culprit. As the author has experience of taking sometimes slight material and making a whole film out of it, he should have taken a step back from several of these, and crafted a better ending. The book is not very long as it is, most of the stories 20 pages if that, and many deserve a fuller cycle of beginning, middle and end. Were set up with a good situation, and drift into not much really, too often.
It also has to be said sometimes the humour falls flat, but never to make a story unreadable. (You might want to skip one or two for foul language and violent events, but thats up to you...) Never does the book smack of being a vanity exercise, unless you take to the autobiographical bits, which are some of the least entertaining, less well than this reader.
Still, on flicking through the volume for this review, it was surprising how many of the stories were memorable for some reason or other. Yet from early on in reading the rating was stuck to a three star review. It seems the stories offer many an entertaining premise, and at their best some great characterisation and writing, but a lot is quite take-it-or-leave-it - which harks back to the balance mentioned at the top.
The hardback of this came out in 1998, the paperback soon after. You should be able to find a copy with little effort. It would help if you were a Coen fan, though, but if you arent it should not put you off too much. A private eye who has one ear bitten off, then loses his hearing in the other in mental sympathy is not something you read about every day.
What will depend on your devotion to the C brothers though will be on how long this book lasts on your shelves. You get fourteen tales, and several are very good, but the feeling was that there was no urge to keep the book once it was read. Youd probably buy it more eagerly if you were a Coen fan, and also keep hold of it with more avidity if their films inflate your lilo.
As for theed, well he likes several of the films, and really liked some of the writing and detail here, and didnt find anything to particularly *not* enjoy, but the book wont be kept. He is happy to recommend the reading of the book though, with as much eagerness as three stars can muster, but that is in considering reading it. In buying it, 2 stars and no recommendation for purchase.
These Gates of Eden, then, should be opened for all, but not bought.
Whilst the Coen brothers' films can, according to your fancy, be praised or damned as a triumph of style over narrative, this small, imperfectly-formed but ultimately entertaining collection of stories from Ethan Coen never overemphasises easy style and never falls into drab dusty throwback storytelling, etch-a-sketch impressionistic artiness or the stoopid balls-for-brains certainty that afflicts the more often-viewed corners of the twisted guggenheim edifice of american literature ( :-/ sorry about that sentence..it was half-price down the local lit-crit superstore on my Ars Longa card...i couldn't resist..it came with free air freshener....) With some obvious echoes of the films, and many scriptwriter stylings, the book trips along happily through the kind of bleak American nightmares (in dayglo pyjamas) that those familiar with the films have come to know and deal with in their own way. As a book, it is difficult to judge, because, as a book, the feel of the words is so obviously wise-guy CoBro that the films can, will, must intrude. The camera angles are there clear and unwritten, the music swells mildly in that knowing fashion, the images of bemusement, Jewish opera, beautifully shot all-American failure all pass by, and the end result is to make me smile and laugh out loud on the bus (a real bus, not your 'I laughed out loud on the bus five times' Evening Standard reviewers' convention ((ES convention- horrible thought...conference of Satan's pawns)) Now where were we...oh yes..the stories themselves are all short and the scene shifts from Minneapolis to somewhere in Minnesota to a small town near St Paul to...oooh maybe California for a bit and then back to Minnesota. Our heroes and heroines and villains and bystanders all talk in that strange scripted demotic that passes for authentic American in the literary world, and perhaps the real world. Nobody in these stories is remotely real, but they talk and walk in the
kind of oddly mannered way that caricatures realness and allows us to the map our inner states onto paper thin...erm...paper. So we have: Slumming clever-boy boxers who can't box, finding themselves out of their depth as hired muscle. Smallest scale gangsters. Private eyes with radio-script lives. Families who wake up knowing they don't know each other. Wide eyed Jewish summer camps. Talentless mobsters. Cruel weights and measures department cowboys. Lost relatives. All-American domestic murderers who don't know why they did it, and don't know who to tell. I find the sheer lack of direction of the characters, the bemused response of shmucks who things happen to, and who never learn, very appealing. There's something about the way the stories drift off in to twenty terrible years in a sentence that locks in to my pessimistic, but still laughing until there's nothing left to laugh about, world-view. The key to enjoying these stories is to turn off any expectation of Coen-brothers stylistic fireworks and in-depth characterisation, and to throw in your lot with the child-safe firecracker super-real dialogue. The creeping grime in the corners of the frames forms stains that spell 'FAILURE FAILURE FAILURE. The smallness (and awful crawling shame) of it all is sometimes more Mike Leigh than Coen brothers, but still very entertaining: "He used his meager prison savings to open a two-chair barbershop on the fringes of downtown. He put a sign in the window: NO HIPPIES. He had a few steady customers, mostly elderly. Business was not good. In 1967 he took down NO HIPPIES and put up a new sign: UNISEX HAIRSTYLES. It fooled no-one, and business remained slow." The book is always (very) entertaining, and (very) occasionally moving. The tale of the father with his two sons stuck in the middle of America, ill-matched, bemused, unconnected captures a familiar feel
ing well, and gave me one of those see-the-world-with-new-eyes knockbacks that I read books for. So there it is...not terribly profound...always entertaining...quite stylish....made me smile.
Published by Doubleday