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Book News
Gates of Eden

Ethan Coen's 'Eden' is a fun, wisecracking collection

'Gates of Eden'
by Ethan Coen

William Morrow & Co., $24

Review by Jayne Bowman

(CNN) -- The first of many laughs in "Gates of Eden" happens on the first page, a mere few lines in. An amateur, and rotten, boxer is in the ring. Though he meets the first of many blows with gaping surprise, he's proud of his reaction to the second punch: " least I'd seen it coming, so I felt good." As an intellectual disillusioned with dry academia, the narrator has taken to boxing as a way to immerse himself in the world of things and people and physicality. He describes his experiment with the real world as being "on safari."

The cerebral young boxer's attempt to feel the grit of the working stiffs around him can be compared to Coen's own decision to people his book with bumbling commoners. But the comparison ends there. Where the boxer/narrator is pummeled and punished by those he seeks to understand, Coen's hilarious exploration of these blue-collar lives succeeds with the "thip-thip rhythm" of the first chapter's knockout.

Ethan Coen is best known as half of the writing/directing team of the Coen brothers, whose quirky films have earned them both a rabid cult of followers and critical distinction. Marked by odd violence against an absurdly normal backdrop, their films include "Blood Simple", "Raising Arizona", "Barton Fink" and "Fargo". "Gates of Eden" is a collection of short stories linked by a mentality that's hard to put into words.

Faintly 1940s in feel, the book is in love with the wisecrackers of the world, the beautiful women who distract the hapless men and the brute palookas who rule their turf with force and childlike logic. We meet an inordinate amount of characters named Joe. Several of the tales are narrated by children.

A 10-year-old Jewish boy tells one of the book's stronger stories. The child's musings range from the juvenile (he admires the school wiseass who once "peed on the radiator while loudly singing 'O, Canada'") to the abstractly horrific. The boy's description of waking late at night to a silent house showcases Coen's knack for capturing the terrors of ordinary life and death. "Eventually a deep rhythmic chanting would develop inside the silence," the boy recalls, "My closed bedroom door ... developed greater and greater force in (its) stillness ... and my screams crashing against it make not a dent."

Other characters rationalize violent episodes, wryly and with a defensive spin. One chapter is a monologue to the police, related by a egotistical and well-enemied record executive who has returned home to a grotesque murder scene. Yet another narrator paints such an unpleasant picture of his recently departed wife that the reader nearly sympathizes with the murderer. Another character, a Joe, takes his job government job so seriously that he resorts to beating those he regulates to "encourage" them to calibrate their gas pumps.

But the real disturbing, and disturbingly humorous, elements of the book lie in the dispassion of the narrators. The father of two clearly adorable children speaks of his life as "an elaborate and cruelly pointless behavioral experiment" and wonders of the boys: "why should disappointment be propagated through another generation, a cruel snap traveling down an endless rope?"

Surprisingly, the book does not read in a particularly cinematic way. The mental crane shots that so often plague movie-types turned fiction writers are nowhere to be found. The only evidence of Coen's directorial bent is in the naturalness of the dialogue. Life is breathed into one potentially cliche scenario through the language of a gangster's wife. With her formerly powerful husband now humbled into hiding, she bemoans, "I give the food to Army ... He says he can reheat. This is not a life. Reheating? In an apartment? Never going out? What, cable television?"

Coen's gift for easy, real language makes these often incredible stories seem credible. And warm. And very, very funny.

Jayne Bowman is a freelance writer and former editor of Orbit Magazine.

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