Book Review: "Desperate Times" by Adam Kluger
This sterling short story collection humorously explores the role of obtaining individual
expression through the power of personality, luck and perseverance.
With 45 short stories involving 40 different characters (one character appears in 5 stories), the
drive to avoid invisibility and obtain self-expression in life is one of many common threads. The
collection reminds me of Martin Amis’s “Heavy Water and Other Stories” (1999 Harmony
Press) mixed with a little of the “Sex and The City”-type newspaper columns (the starting point
for “Sex In The City” HBO TV show) and also follows the framework of the bestseller “the
imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman (2010 The Dial Press/Random House).
“Desperate Times” by Adam Kluger turns the conventions of short story compilations inside out
by keeping each story breezy and fluid but complex enough to make you feel the soul behind
each character’s story arc. Once the beat of a story or character is hit, it is on to the next. Before
you know it, you are on ride back and forth through decades (80s to present) and locations with
characters of all different ages. While the stories are based mostly New York City, there are
journeys to Nantucket, Long Island, Vassar College, Ithaca, the Catskills and a Caribbean island.
The characters all resonate and resemble the bizarre, absurd or guarded people we’ve come
across in life but here we are artfully told why they make the good and bad decisions we all
make. There are no childhood flashbacks and early parent deaths that might explain a
character’s choices. There are only sharp actions and thoughts driving the narrative. This
stripped down and wistful writing is controlled and absorbing. No drama is too small and no
disappointment is too private. All slights and insults are spot-on and sting deeply.
In my preparing for this book review, the author disclosed to me that a couple of the stories are
semi-autobiographical. Some are also inspired by real persons or composite characters. All
names have been changed to protect the guilty, scrabbling and/or shady.
Like all short story collections, some chapters are more memorable than others. I liked the
“Television Man” looking in the mirror after finally getting re-hired. I very much remember the
homeless painter clawing his way up from oblivion. There is the poignant 5-part series about
“Manfred Gogol,” the loathsome dilettante whose nonsense would make you leave the room of a
party he was in if you were at a party that had more than one room. I felt my skin crawl reading
about the likeable conman (“Henri-Pierre”) that we all know and that someone eventually tells
you is in prison after he stopped appearing in public.
There are side-trips of high school and college sexcapades recounted without regret or
introspection and an intense elegy to marijuana.
The narrator observes without intrusion as each 4-8 page story quickly establishes its character
and tone. Sometimes plot envelopes character because the plot is more than sufficient. We get
an inside look at a student (“Craig Bugowski”) attending Horace Mann high school during the
height of its famous sex scandal. No character-building is necessary there as the story is the
story. In comparison, the story in which two stoners (“Ding-Dong & Bear”) get an unwelcome
knock on the door by police officers is hilarious and deftly realized through its quirky characters.
The book often considers the ambiguous role of the writer who struggles between observer and
commentator. As a result, there is often no judgment made towards those “in the struggle” or
brought low by life’s inherent combats and vicissitudes.
In the first story, Kluger establishes his goal to keep us off balance and to make us hope for
firmer footing later on: “Mr. Schmertz” experiences a morning that keeps going from bad to
worse. Life gets better a few stories later when “Paul” gets rewarded with effortless hookups
during a summer in Nantucket.
Upon reading each story, we’re left to figure out a way to live. For the characters and the author,
this means constant ambition and striving through interpersonal connections and strength of will.
There are no long walks on the beach or any turgid self-reflections. Artistic endeavors lead to
other leads which in turn lead to tragicomic endings, happiness or hard landings.
Kluger’s use of language in this collection, and especially of verbs, is vibrant, and he employs
various forms and tones that help to convey the feel of his speakers’ thoughts. He avoids
metaphors and keeps it simple, intense and accurate. Kluger has cited Hemingway, Bukowski,
and Mamet among his literary influences and that is often reflected in Kluger's tight prose,
humorous characters and realistic dialogue.
Though his stories can often turn serious, melancholy, or dark, Kluger can also laugh at himself.
The 10 mostly dialogue chapters are alternatively hilarious, bitter, artful and shocking.
A sequence of especially strong stories involves simple locales – a barbershop, a diner, a hospital
floor, a subway car, an Irish pub- that are barebones, funny and all too human.
In the final section, the author drifts back to live in mystery and desperation as ambiguous
endings collide with artful and elegiac perceptions. Overall, these are strong, moving stories of
humanity in a fine collection.