Readers who venture into Ladies and Gentlemen, Adam Ross’ new collection of short stories, can’t say they weren’t warned: The title alone suggests boys and girls behaving badly. (Is that prim phrase ever used unironically anymore?) But just in case anyone is inclined to hope the naughtiness will be lighthearted, Ross has tacked on an ominous epigraph from George Eliot: “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.” Add to those signifiers the fact that Ross is the author of Mr. Peanut, a widely acclaimed novel that Stephen King called “the most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and any reader should know there will be plenty of ugliness within.
And so there is, although Ross primarily confines himself to the quieter forms of cruelty in these seven stories, all set in a familiar, mostly white, mostly middle-class American milieu. With one exception, the protagonists are male, and all of them are struggling in one way or another to reconcile a desire to be decent with their darker instincts and personal weaknesses. The bad stuff leaks out in minor instances of cowardice, apathy, selfishness, deceit and betrayal until some critical level of sin is reached, at times with devastating consequences. Ross’ characters aren’t unaware of their failings, but they often seem helpless to save themselves from themselves.
This dilemma is portrayed most effectively in “Futures,” a masterfully constructed tale that opens the collection. In it, we meet David Applelow, a 43-year-old single New Yorker who is unemployed, close to broke and lonely enough to make a hopeless pass at his not-terribly-attractive neighbor, Marnie. Applelow sees his current predicament as the result of his lifelong inability to engage or even imagine a future for himself. He recognizes this “great failing” as the reason he has “no security, no job, no love, no children. His life fell all about him like a tree’s leaves in autumn.” When an enticing possibility is put before him, quite literally, in the form of a sexy interviewer offering a mysterious job, he pursues it desperately, ignoring the many signs that something is amiss, and not quite realizing that he is yet again falling through his life. Meanwhile, he finds himself roped into looking after Marnie’s delinquent college-age son, who reminds Applelow uncomfortably of himself. Both engagements end badly — one in a maddening betrayal, the other in a spectacularly cynical act of cruelty. Applelow is forced to confront his helplessness before the ways of the world and his own blindness. In that moment, however, he finds a thread of possibility that leads to a kind of redemption.
Most of the stories in Ladies and Gentlemen do not repeat the resolution of “Futures.” Ross sometimes leaves his characters teetering at the edge of some action that they (and we) recognize as a possible path to ruin; the unresolved ending forces the reader to judge what happens next, based on his or her own reading of the character and the circumstances — or perhaps on only the understanding of human nature the reader brings to the story. Other times, Ross follows his characters all the way down the path of self-destruction. Infidelity, suicide and revenge all come into play.
In general, Ross does not reward his characters’ attempts to express their better selves. In fact, the payoff for any attempt to be good is likely to be painful. In “When in Rome,” a brother’s desire to grow closer to his less successful sibling is repaid with betrayal. “The Rest of It” portrays an unhappy divorced college professor confronted with a moral challenge that he is hopelessly unequipped either to engage or ignore. In “In the Basement,” Ross makes an obvious parallel between the bonds of marriage and the cruel confinement of a dog: just as a caged dog in the story remains desperately in love with its owner, so too do the exploited wives in the story remain attached to their spouses. “Never underestimate a woman’s loyalty,” says one domineering husband. In the world of this story, commitment and forbearance are for suckers.
Ross is a skillful but never showy writer, and one of the chief pleasures of these stories is enjoying his highly polished, somewhat spare prose. When he indulges in a rare flourish, it’s usually to evoke a visual impression. An old lady is “a thick little turtle of a woman”; a sonogram shows an unborn baby’s face “suddenly elongated like a Munch painting.” Ross sometimes writes in a deliberately cinematic way, and beautifully so. The final passage of “Futures,” as Applelow watches Marnie walk away from him, is a veritable homage to Hitchcock: “She took each step carefully, her fingers gliding lightly along the banister. It was so bright in the foyer that she seemed to be descending into a different realm, the square of sunlight downstairs every bit as white as the darkness in his bedroom was solidly black. Marnie’s form was a mere silhouette on the stairs, but her color was restored at the bottom.”
Adam Ross is a gifted writer, and he gives these stories a beauty and clarity that are strangely at odds with a grim vision of human relationships. The dark themes that drive the action here are easy to rush past in the easy flow of the words. It’s only with reflection that their full import comes through. Ladies and Gentlemen is a book that bears, even demands, rereading. And in the sea of throwaway fiction, that is surely one measure of its success.
For more local book coverage — including an interview with Adam Ross and an excerpt from Ladies and Gentlemen — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.