A ponderous collection by a Minnesota author (Going Nowhere, 1971,
etc.) who seems to have mastered Poe's voice without plumbing his
depth. There appears to be a revival of interest in Gothic fiction
these days, and not all of the blame can be laid at Anne Rice's
window lattice: New Age psychology, rock music, and a simple
weariness with the vacuity of most literary fiction have all added
fuel to the fire. While Greenburg is not Gothic (and certainly not
"Goth") in the strict sense of the word, he does seem to have an
obsession of sorts with death. The title story, "How the Dead
Live," is a good example: its portrayal of a man's encounter with a
mugger turns into a classic memento mori when both thief and victim
realize they're dead: "Don't mess with me, buddy. Never mess with a
dead man. Dead men don't have anything to lose." Feidelman, the man
in question, is dead because he hasn't "anything to live for," and
this sense of despair is a common theme running through most of
Greenburg's 15 stories. "Gruber in Traffic," for example, describes
the midlife crisis of a 43-year-old Minnesota lawyer who becomes
obsessed with his own death after seeing a vision of his rabbi
staring at him in the midst of a traffic jam. "A Couple of Dead
Men" describes the relations of two brothers who attempt to come
together after one is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Spivak, the
hero of "Immersion," drives himself to the emergency room after
getting hit by a UPS truck, and Elaine ("Crimes Against Humanity")
displays her increasingly suicidal desperation by obsessively
asking people, "How much evil can a person do in a lifetime?" All
in all, a morbid lot. Restrained prose and capable dialogue carry
these pieces a fair distance, but the portentousness becomes too
much after a while. Eventually, the stories seem as dead as their
characters. (Kirkus Reviews)
"Death, disguised as a rabbi, gets stuck in traffic in one of Alvin
Greenberg's remarkable stories. Eerie, wry, and humane, these tales
are both comforting and unsettling, because they bring us the
darkest news with great equanimity. There is another side to
everything, including mortality, and Alvin Greenberg seems to have
been there and brought these stories back."--Charles Baxter
"How the Dead Live" is filled not with victims of the many major
traumas of our times but with individuals whose lives have been
wrested from their control by the random impact of the commonplace:
by accident and disease, by urban chaos, by the lost and the found.
The ancestor of this collection, as of most American short fiction,
is undoubtedly Edgar Allan Poe, with characters caught up in his
recognition that "to be buried alive is, beyond question, the most
terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere
mortality." Greenberg's stories are full of people who are buried
in their own lives and strugling with whatever crude tools come to
hand--humor, despair, confrontation, acceptance--to carve out a
little underground space where they can breathe. Through small
moments of the ridiculous and larger moments of emotional
conversation, the stories re-enact the drama of how we are all to
survive our own immersion in the inexplicable.
Alvin Greenberg is the author of several novels, collections of
short stories, poetry books, and opera libretti. His short story
collection "Delta q" won the Associated Writing Programs' Short
Fiction Prize, and his work has twice been included in "Best
American Short Stories." Greenberg teaches at Macalester College in
Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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