Book Review – LUCKY ALAN And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

Lucky Alan : And Other Stories Synopsis :

The incomparable Jonathan Lethem returns with nine stories that demonstrate his mastery of the short form.

Jonathan Lethem’s third collection of stories uncovers a father’s nervous breakdown at SeaWorld in “Pending Vegan”; a foundling child rescued from the woods during a blizzard in “Traveler Home”; a political prisoner in a hole in a Brooklyn street in “Procedure in Plain Air”; and a crumbling, haunted “blog” on a seaside cliff in “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear.” Each of these locates itself in Lethem-land, which can be discovered only by visiting. As in his celebrated novels, Lethem finds the uncanny lurking in the mundane, the irrational self-defeat seeping through our upstanding pursuits, and the tragic undertow of the absurd world(s) in which we live.

Devoted fans of Lethem will recognize familiar themes: the anxiety of influence taken to reductio ad absurdum in “The King of Sentences” and characters from forgotten comics stranded on a desert island in “Their Back Pages.” As always in Lethem, humor and poignancy work in harmony, humans strive desperately for connection, words find themselves misaligned to deeds, and the sentences are glorious. (Doubleday)


Lucky Alan, And Other Stories is my first experience of the much lauded work of Jonathan Lethem. I had read of Lethem’s enviable command of language and as an admirer of such talents, and of the short form, approached this collection with high expectations.

To be blunt, after reading the first and title story in the collection, ‘Lucky Alan’, I was most perturbed. I found the characters emotionally stunted and wholly unlikable and the author’s frequent displays of his extensive vocabulary self indulgent.

Whether Blondy ever felt old I couldn’t guess. His grandiosity, his U-turn anecdotes, his contempt for the obvious statement didn’t invite such guesses, only the tribute of gratified awe. I gave it. Blondy was like a skater up his own river, a frozen ribbon the rest of us might have glimpsed through trees, from within a rink where we circled to tinny music.

At this point I considered doing the almost unthinkable for me, not continuing with the collection. But, I decided to read on, and am glad I did so. While ‘enjoyment’ is not an accurate description of my response to the stories that followed, ‘intrigued’ and ‘mentally stimulated’ are.

I was engrossed by the stream of consciousness and stark imagery used to evoke feelings of powerlessness and isolation in ‘Traveler Home’. ‘Procedure in Plain Air’ was an absurdist take on the darker undertones of society – the disempowerment of the individual and the perils of society when too many people choose the convenience of turning a blind eye. I admired Lethem’s passion for the written word on display in ‘The King of Sentences’, but I found the seam of obsession and perversion running through it disturbing.

While I did not necessarily gel with the often insalubrious subject matter within this collection, on several occasions I did respect the application of Lethem’s enviable turn of phrase to it. From this philosophical opening of ‘The P*rn Critic’,

Kromer couldn’t operate hedonism but these days it operated him, in the way that a pinned cyclinder operates a piano.

to this imagery within ‘Pending Vegan’.

Another piece of coercive architecture, the passage tunneled beneath the sharks’ tanks, illuminating the creatures from below, the better to consider their white bellies and jack-o’-lantern grimaces. It struck him now that the park’s design was somehow alimentary. You were being engulfed, digested, sh&t out.

Of the nine stories within the collection, the two that I considered most successful were ‘Their Back Pages’, a surrealist, clever and humourous social commentary involving comic strips, and the much darker ‘The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear’ which ingeniously explores the motivations of online publication.

Despite the abundance of cleverness and artistry on display in Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan, And Other Stories, most of the titles lacked what is for me a quintessential element of a short story – the blindside, that sucker punch, the sting in the tail. There were twists of some description, but in many cases I was left feeling short-changed.

BOOK RATING: The Story 2.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3.5 / 5

Available from:
Book Depository | AmazonKobobooksBooktopia(Aus)

Genre: Short Stories, Drama, Literature


Author Information: 

Jonathan Lethem is the author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and the nonfiction collection The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Lethem has published his stories and essays in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, among others. He lives in California.

Other reviews of Lucky Alan : And Other Stories : The New York Times, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, Three Guys One Book, Typographical Era

* My receiving a copy of this book from Doubleday for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.