Review by Christopher Friesen
Yes, that Ethan Coen.
The not-quite-indie, not-quite- Hollywood filmmaker, who along with his brother Joel, wrote Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the author of this collection of short stories.
Part homage to a youth spent in Minneapolis and part homage to the gritty crime fiction of the past, this collection of fourteen stories displays an impressive mastery of the narrative craft where the main element tying everything together is some form of delinquency.
In the book’s opener “Destiny,” told in the first person, a young boxer with no ability to land a single blow (but who possesses the eloquence to poetically describe his own beatings) is hired by a man to photograph his philandering wife. More beatings ensue. This story sets the tone for the remainder of the book, acting as a benchmark for Coen’s style of dark, ironic humor which surfaces throughout the remaining stories.
There are other highlights including the profane “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland?” where readers are subjected to a fly-on-the-wall perspective as the protagonist discusses a list of possible suspects, and motives why each might want to do him harm to a police officer over the phone. However, we’re not privy to the police officer’s side of the conversation. Coen keeps the tension throughout the narriative by constantly reveling new dirt and more twisted behavior about the possible suspects. And it’s only in the final paragraph that he reveals the crime being discussed. This provides an emotional and disturbing ending that will leave you waiting for a fly swatter to put you out of your misery.
Fans of hard boiled detective stories, meanwhile, should check out “Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator,” a sometimes silly but often humorous radio drama script about a down-on-his-luck P.I. trying to climb out of the bottle long enough to get the dame.
Then there’s the title story, “Gates of Eden,” a rough and tumble romp through the world of rouge civil servants with a generous helping of sex, scat, and fisticuffs. This one is definitely not to be missed.
Coen’s style could best be described as neo-noir, sparse in imagery and description but heavy on dialogue. He allows the nature of the character, through the uniqueness of their voice, develop setting. He uses first and third person narrative, one sided conversation and scripted radio plays within this collection and though the stories are not long, the variation in content helps keep the whole interesting.
Still, nothing in this collection is challenging, Coen does not ask us to become his heroes or his villains, rather he invites us in to view his world of darkness, debauchery, lewd behavior and misery. Along the way he entertains, fills us with revulsion, makes us consider existence as something exterior to our essence, then he smacks us in the face with the reality that misery is usually a self inflicted injury. He leaves us there, after fourteen short stories, licking our wounds and wanting the company of more.
Three of these stories, including “Gates of Eden” itself, were previously published in national magazines and fortunately the other eleven have been added to complete this collection. To date this is Coen’s only book and whether you are fan of his movies or not, this book is well worth reading.