This World Takes No Hostages : DEAR DEAD PERSON: Short Fiction, <i> By Benjamin Weissman</i> ; <i> (High Risk Books/Serpent’s Tail Press: $10.99, paperback; 224 pp.)</i>
The title story of Benjamin Weissman’s short fiction opens with a quote from advice columnist Ann Landers, in which she calls “morbid curiosity . . . one of the less attractive qualities of human nature.” Though not essential, a good dose of morbid curiosity might not hurt those hiking through this harrowing collection of short stories, Weissman’s first. This work firmly places Weissman alongside colleague Dennis Cooper in the ranks of L.A. writers who feel right at home in a homicidal maniac’s head.
Although he shares with the author of “Try,” “Closer” and “Frisk” a predilection for the flesh-carving antics of men who prey on boys, at heart, Weissman is an egalitarian. Rather than limit his gaze to the murderously homophobic, as Cooper does, he observes madness in varied walks of life.
In the glibly titled “Squash,” when a mother’s brutal attempt to discipline an unruly 9-year-old fails, 200 pounds of parent nestles itself on the child’s chest in hopes of teaching the boy a lesson. Predictably, the worst occurs. Unexpected is the mother’s obliviousness to the suffering and eventual death she causes. With the authorities on their way, her defiant daughter still clutching the phone, sobbing and her son’s lungs collapsing like an accordion beneath her, the mother complains, “I’ve gotten so uncomfortable I can’t rise off our birthday boy to slap the nonsense out of the brat.”
Weissman is a master at tracing the web of rationalization that killers weave. The book is at its most horrific when the reader is jolted by the shock of recognition, as in “Ardmore.” Here a backwoods woman triggers a murder by notifying her half-crazed landlord, Ardmore, about the film crew that just showed up on his property. Ardmore launches into a rage, shouting, “No one’s going to treat honest country folk like pharmaceutical monkeys!” He starts firing, and one of the cameramen with “out-of-state plates” falls down dead. Afterwards the woman is stricken with guilt, not over the bloodshed but over “being the center of attention.” “I liked being filmed,” she confides, “and I desperately want to see what I look like.” Hollywood obviously is not the only place where vanity flourishes, especially when it comes to places in the world where loss of life is not nearly as tragic as living a life of dismal poverty.
Weissman is at his most poignant in “The Future” and “The Present,” which stand on their own but work best as companion pieces. In the former we meet an entrepreneurial Christian Scientist who is convinced that hog’s blood will loosen death’s grip on his wife’s corpse. He says his son will help him in this endeavor but can’t just yet for the son “can’t think of anything except all the singing planets in the sky.” In the latter story we meet another Christian Scientist who is unable to part with his dead wife, even though his son has already dug the hole in the back yard. The man gently bathes her corpse in Epsom salts and places it in bed beside him. He hugs and kisses the body and rolls on top of it. “Come on back,” he whispers. “Here I am, wishing you were here, no place like home.” Within these two stories Weissman finds briefly that uneasy balance between the absurd and the grotesque, which results in a heart-rending lyricism.
True, “Dear Dead Person” can read like a freak show but it’s more than that. In “A German Moment,” a Jewish narrator confesses to listening to German folk music on the radio, unable to enjoy it, yet dutifully turning to it every Saturday morning. “It’s difficult,” he says, “to get off the Holocaust channel because it’s on the consciousness network twenty-four hours every day, forever. . . . (It) will always be popular because it’s still so new, happened only yesterday and nothing is simpler or more confusing than exterminating people.”
In language that could have come from the back of a cereal box, Weissman makes visible the driving forces of our culture (technology, advertising) that since Sputnik have accelerated our lives to a warped speed. Throughout the book, Weissman suggests that our civilization, still reeling from the atrocities of the last World War, has become a breeding ground for serial killers whose internal antennae pick up voices that coax them to create their own mini-apocalypses. Once you realize this, you realize that it’ll take more than Dear Ann and her sensible advice to save you.