Neil LaBute is noted for his sardonic, sometimes shockingly frank films (“In the Company of Men,” in which two guys torment a deaf woman; “Your Friends and Neighbors,” which exposes the sex lives of three intermingled couples) and stage plays (“The Mercy Seat,” in which a man who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 uses the attack as an excuse to linger with his mistress, and “Bash,” three one-acts about ordinary people who happen to be killers).
Not surprisingly, LaBute’s first collection of fiction, “Seconds of Pleasure,” leans heavily on the theme of misogyny. Ranging from brutal to vicious, wicked to wistful, LaBute’s narcissistic men fight the restraints of civility, marriage, decency and, in some cases, any attempt to check their impulses. LaBute plumbs the mind of the endangered male who feels hostility, guilt, lust, shame and fury toward the women in his life.
Structured mostly as spare monologues or dialogues, these 20 stories have such clarity that they might be admired for their harmonious design and meticulous prose. Two of them -- “Time Share” and “Spring Break” -- are rendered in language so authentic yet oblique that they hinge on a last-minute revelation and give a new twist to adultery in the first story and a student/professor affair in the second. A single misplaced word would have given away the trick in these linguistic high-wire acts. LaBute’s flaws are the flip side of his gift. He is so glib at capturing voice, so attuned to the dance of text and subtext, that he tends to leave unexplored the deeper levels of why his characters are the way they are. These are not traditional short fictions as much as urgent dispatches from Beer & Babesland that remind us how displaced, dislocated, free-floating and morally anesthetized we have become.
In “A Second of Pleasure,” a woman meets her lover at the train station to say that she won’t be going away with him for the weekend. He is irritated that she waited until the last minute to tell him. She has had a moment of looking at her husband eating his breakfast cereal. “I felt some kind of pleasure. Only a second, really, but it was so deep and so honest, and it was in that instant that I remembered everything about why we had come together and married.... " It was, she announces, the sort of pleasure she would never find with her lover. He says of his wife: “It warms me a bit, to look into her eyes and deceive her.”
In “Whitecap,” a flight attendant recognizes the wife of her lover on a flight to London; she knows the wife is in for a nasty surprise when she pops into the husband’s London apartment unannounced. In “Loose Change,” a wife fights the realization that a groove in her husband’s wallet is the shape of the wedding ring he removes regularly while away on business.
In “Soft Target,” an actor spots a familiar girl/woman on the jogging path. He thinks she is an actress/model he picked up on the same jogging trail and had sex with after a swim at his place. Then he sees who she is with: a writer/director who had won a golden “something” and made a “big silly” action/buddy/road picture “that had somehow sparked at the box office and did a hundred million or so.”
It is possible, if not particularly palatable, to read these stories in one sitting. Perhaps that is because LaBute’s moral aesthetics hinge upon showing what is going wrong with our culture. After all, what would Chekhov have made of a country where the most common cause of death among pregnant women is murder by the child’s father? Where a soldier on leave throws a fellow soldier -- the woman who rejected him -- to her death from a Times Square hotel. Where men slip women a memory-altering drug to commit “date rape” and threaten the women they love with death if they dare leave them? Why blame a storyteller when his man/woman dialogue has a frightful tendency to escalate into all-out war?
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection “Stealing the Fire.”