Best New Fiction

The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, and other stories

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The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, and other stories
by David Ebenbach
University of Massachusetts Press (254 pages, January 2017)

Reviewed by N. West Moss

 

David Ebenbach’s humor, his mix of empathy and intellect all come across loud and clear in his new short story collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy. These stories, out of all of his six published books to date, are most effervescently indicative of the man behind the writing.

The title story is a send-up of everyone’s fear that something cool is happening and they are not invited. While readers naturally relate to the uninvited guy, Ebenbach’s narrator is the orgy organizer, so readers are forced to see the dilemma from his point of view. He isn’t sure why he neglected to invite this one actually pretty good guy. He says, “It’s just that, when you’re putting an orgy together, you have this sense that you’d better not invite every single last person on earth.” Thus, a fraught transaction is rendered benign. Everyone’s a good guy, the organizer, the uninvited. It’s a hilarious story that leaves readers feeling like maybe it doesn’t matter whether we’re invited or not.

This worry about fitting in is explored further, and from a different angle, in “Eleven Girls.” Even with eleven girls who think 15-year-old Josh is “cute,” Josh is in torment. Every time he sees Vicki (a girl he turned down awkwardly for a date) at Independence Village, for instance, he wants to “stab himself to death with his fake bayonet.” There is no simple calculation when it comes to social interaction.

In the breathtaking “Everyone around Me,” the narrator is about to give a presentation of his paintings at an artists’ colony. As he watches others present before him, he says, “I wanted everyone around me to fail.” He fantasizes about stepping into the void left by these failures, being gracious and humble, his success in direct relation to their failure. He also “wanted to be the one who succeeded in making [them] feel better about” their failures. There is, however, real pathos in how much he loves everyone else’s work, even as he’s hoping their presentations will tank. He likes them tremendously, even though as one woman shared poems she’d written, his “desire for her to fail approached the level of prayer.” When he finally presents his work, it is fulfilling in a way he hadn’t expected. Everyone comes up to him afterwards and in various ways says, “We are the same.” It’s enormously moving.

Ebenbach pushes himself out of his comfort zone in this collection as well. In “Hunting Gathering” he writes from the point of view of a young woman. While humor prevailed here (as it does throughout), her voice rang startlingly true. The narrator describes a man arriving at a retreat who “was already displaying Male Pattern Lecturing, and starting his sentences with ‘What you have to do’.” The humor doesn’t negate the veracity, though. Just a page later, the narrator observes that “Women are trained to do everything they can to talk men out of the few sacrifices men are willing to make.” The tone here, and elsewhere in the collection, is humorous but surprisingly pithy.

His stories are told from many different points of view (a young woman, a teenage boy working at a theme park, an African-American husband, a sex worker) without ever giving the sense that the author is trying to co-opt their stories, but rather is trying to inhabit them. That’s a tough needle to thread, and one serious writers are forced to consider. Ebenbach doesn’t try to use these voices to flatter or stereotype, but rather seems to be trying to understand worlds near, but outside of, his own. He looks for the humanity in his characters, using a tone that is utterly (blessedly) devoid of contempt.

There are more experimental pieces here too, such as the barber who doesn’t know when to stop cutting in “We’ll Finish When We’re Done.” The breadth of style, character and tone give the sense of a writer at play, enjoying his own ability, and enjoying also getting to know the characters he’s bringing forth.

It’s an enormously lovable collection of stories that explores the alienation that most people feel, but attempts to resolve it, showing that in the end “We are all the same,” if only because we all feel ourselves to be on the outside looking in.

N. West Moss is the author of The Subway Stops at Bryant Park from Leapfrog Press. Find out more at https://NWestMoss.wordpress.com

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