Sunday, October 10, 2004
The reviews of daydreams or beards may not do it. The list of unsuitable baby names might not, either. Maybe it will take the thought of basketball-playing, precedent-setting Supreme Court justices.
But something in the collection "Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans" ($16.95, Knopf) is guaranteed to cause a chuckle.
And if Dave Eggers, one of the book's editors, has his way, it will even cause pain, filling you "with such joy you may want to beat your head on a rock in the garden," he writes in his introduction.
Eggers is head of McSweeney's, the publisher of books and a literary quarterly. The collection features the work of a slew of authors -- mostly unknown outside McSweeney's -- that includes skits, stories and humorous lists.
(Example: among words that would make good baby names if it weren't for their meanings -- Calorie and Angina for girls, Thwart and Raunch for boys.)
There's no rhyme or reason to the collection, other than that any topic is a potential target.
Social problems and government? They're here.
Pop culture and pirates? Yep.
Babies, corporate mascots and summer camps? Are they ever!
Most of the pieces in the book can be found on McSweeney's Web site www.mcsweeneys.net but the print version lends the material a tangible hand. Besides, it makes it that much easier to share the laughs -- and joy headaches -- with friends.
Not every piece works for everyone. But on the whole, it's pretty funny stuff. Not so much Woody Allen or satire as it is just plain bizarre.
Take, for example, how important moments in the life of Jake Swearingen would have been different if he were shot in the stomach:
"I walk across the stage and shake the principal's hand while he hands me my diploma. I collapse a few steps after, and the entire auditorium where graduation is being held goes deadly quiet," he says of his imagined high school commencement.
Bits and pieces like that won't solve world problems. But they'll make you think and be glad you didn't get shot in the stomach during your first kiss or the day you moved into college.
One of the more thought-provoking, and indeed attractive, ideas is in "No Justice, No Foul" by Jim Stallard. In the piece, which includes diagrams, Supreme Court justices take to the basketball court to decide deadlocked cases. We all know the outcome of 1973's "Roe v. Wade," the case that legalized abortion, but few know just how instrumental Justice Harry A. Blackmun was in the decision, which he wrote.
"He was on a mission," recalled a clerk. "You could tell he had stopped being intimidated and had come into his own. He ran up and down the court for 40 minutes, and after the first 15 the conservatives were just holding their sides and wheezing."
Readers will be holding their sides, too, as they browse through the collection. Its short, concise format will keep readers turning the pages -- at least until little Angina and Raunch want to play.