HITS & MISSES
By Simon Rich
230 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.
Masters of their craft have the frustrating habit of making what they do look easy. Watching Serena Williams serve, one wonders if one too could toss a tennis ball up in the air and, just like that, knock a 120-m.p.h. ace down center court. Near-perfection of a form that seems to come just like that, however, of course rarely does. Tens of thousands of hours of effort and practice have shorn away any evidence of themselves in the final product, resulting in something so good it appears easy. Simon Rich, in his fifth story collection, “Hits & Misses,” is that sort of good. That’s right — I’m saying Simon Rich is the Serena Williams of humor writing.
To those who have read Rich’s previous work, the recurring themes of these 18 stories will be familiar: the struggle of creative ambition against the reality of one’s limitations; the struggle of both rejecting and identifying with a religious tradition; the struggle of the selfish and bratty trying not to be so selfish or bratty.
Rich establishes all of these themes in the opening story, “The Baby.” An aspiring novelist, Ben, becomes envious of his unborn son when Dr. Kowalski reveals in broken English that a blurry shape in the ultrasound is a pencil — “It means you have writer!” Ben has even more to be jealous of when his son is finally born, along with a novel he has completed in utero. “The nurses guided the manuscript out of Sue’s vagina, making sure the title page was facing up. The book was called ‘Last Stand’ and somehow featured an advance blurb from George Saunders.” Like much of Rich’s work, this story treats the absurd completely seriously as it darts seamlessly between humor and gravity, before arriving at an unexpected happy ending.
By the end of this first tale, I not only laughed out loud but also literally said out loud, “That’s funny,” multiple times. I’m not sure which utterance is the higher praise, but I imagine both were equally annoying for fellow subway commuters.
Rich has sharpened his satire over the years, and he now wields it with skill — but he does not cut a wide swath. His tool is a scalpel, not a broadsword. He’s like an otorhinolaryngologist who doesn’t operate on ears or noses. Rich is not cutting up throats, though; he’s cutting down insecure millennial creative types.
A story that appears early in the book, “Birthday Party,” for example, is about Stephen, an insecure college graduate and aspiring writer who is having a crisis of confidence, which is compounded when he has a conversation with his teenage self, Spike. After Spike chastises Stephen for settling for a career in advertising instead of becoming an investigative journalist, the older Stephen replies: “I am a writer. … That’s what ‘content specialist’ means. We went over this at length.”
By comparison, the story “Hands” is on its surface about a monk in the Babylonian desert trying to prove his ascetic devotion to Jesus by cutting off his hands. But what it is really about is — you guessed it — another insecure millennial creative type having a crisis of confidence: “Mordecai is a total hack. Whenever pilgrims visit our camp, he is always at the center of the clearing, ‘coincidentally’ whipping himself at that exact moment. ‘Oh wow!’ they say as they pass him. ‘What a holy monk!’”
The repeated satirical target somehow doesn’t get tiresome, however. A working theory as to why: Rich is able to bring a fresh perspective to this oft-mocked generation because he is himself a millennial, and one who is not on social media. Rich’s stories don’t contain clichéd jokes about obsessively checking Instagram for likes, but instead examine the impulse that drives his more digitally connected peers to log on in the first place.
The collection does have a few misses. “Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile” is a fun enough skewering of the conventions of celebrity profiles of the morally bereft, but the choice to use Hitler for comic effect feels obvious, especially since Rich has done so before (in his collection “Man Seeking Woman,” originally titled “The Last Girlfriend on Earth,” a character’s hatred for his ex’s new romantic partner is amplified when he finds out that she is literally dating Hitler).
“Hits & Misses,” however, contains mostly hits, and Rich is at the height of his craft when he is writing on the border between comedy and tragedy, as in “Stage 13” (in which an in-debt former film student crosses paths with the ghost of an actress who died on a Hollywood soundstage in 1922), “Dinosaur” (an actual dinosaur working as a TV comedy writer struggles to stay relevant) and, my favorite piece in the book, “The Great Jester,” about a character named Havershire.
The tale of Havershire is a sad one, for, as it turns out, he is not such a great jester after all, a reality he is initially oblivious to as his “saucy” puns about Lord Béarnaise fall flat in front of the court. “By this point the ladies were looking down at their laps, clearly overcome with merriment. As for the king, he was so amused that he closed his eyes and sighed.” The story takes a turn the reader might see coming — Havershire is replaced by his protégé, and he pitifully begs the courtier to keep his job: “I know my jokes haven’t always landed. We all have hits and misses. But I can be better! I can change my act!” But it concludes with a turn so unexpected, and satisfyingly poignant, that it brought me to tears — a reaction that probably would not have annoyed my fellow subway commuters had I not used the shirt sleeve of the guy sitting next to me to wipe them away.
Fortunately for me, the very next page began a new delight altogether and, just like that, Rich had me laughing again.
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