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Short Takes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amanda Heller
June 15, 2008

The Tempest Tales
By Walter Mosley
Black Classic, 190 pp., $19.95

The trickster figure is a fixture in African-American folktales. We recognize his descendant, Tempest Landry, a man with a world of outsmarting to accomplish, in this urban fable, a piquant departure for Walter Mosley.

Shot down in Harlem by a policeman who mistakes him for a thief, Tempest appears at the Pearly Gates and is immediately condemned to hell. Summoning his pride and righteous indignation, Tempest, a womanizer and a finagler but no worse a miscreant than most, accuses St. Peter of imposing white men's justice on a black man. His defiance throws heaven into such confusion that Tempest is sent back to earth to meditate on his sins. A guardian angel - the narrator of the novel - is assigned to him, though his mission is not to save Tempest's soul but to get him to accept his consignment to hell, a deal that strikes Tempest as unfair, especially after the devil enters the picture to press his own case.

Through his streetwise hero Mosley spins an entertaining skein of uptown sophistries, while the angel, seduced by earthly delights under Tempest's sly tutelage, comes to appreciate that beholding celestial white light through the black experience truly does yield shades of gray.

Everyday Drinking
By Kingsley Amis
Bloomsbury, 302 pp., $19.99

According to Christopher Hitchens's wry introduction, the novelist Kingsley Amis "was what the Irish call 'your man' when it came to the subject of drink." His estimation is borne out by this collection of Amis's long out-of-print but never out-of-style pronouncements on the art of imbibing, which, like the single malt Scotches Amis recommends so enthusiastically, are best consumed in judiciously measured shots.

Witty, opinionated, and supremely self-assured, these essays function not just as a user's guide but as a revealing self-portrait. There are quizzes and recipes for concocting such period exotica as Singapore Slings, as well as tongue-in-cheek disquisitions on how to subdue a hangover and why the modern pub is an abomination.

Written decades ago (Amis died in 1995), the pieces carry us back to the days when a martini meant gin and vermouth, period, there were only two kinds of wine, French and swill (or "plonk" in Amis's vernacular), and a quite decent bottle might set you back the equivalent of $8 or $9.

For Amis, drink was synonymous with conviviality. And though an excess of conviviality may have helped do him in in the end, it would be puritanical not to savor what he generously poured of himself into these hearty pensées. (For another sip, see A Reading Life.)

Personal Days
By Ed Park
Random House,241 pp.,paperback, $13

When future historians record the decline and fall of American productivity, perhaps they will point to the invention of the office cubicle and to the fatal combination it bred of paranoia and computer-induced catatonia. If so, they may dedicate a footnote to this disquieting satire by Ed Park.

The (lack of) action unfolds inside his anonymous yet spot-on caricature of the contemporary workplace, where wage slaves cower before dysfunctional computers or huddle in the hallways, anxiously analyzing gossip like necromancers examining entrails for some hint of their collective fate. Absurdity cohabits with irony. The employees have too much information about their colleagues, who nevertheless remain virtual strangers. One guy hoards his supply of limited-edition Post-its. Another pops up without warning to give startled co-workers a back rub. Takeover rumors fly. A mysterious wave of layoffs is striking only people whose name begins with J. Someone has left a decomposing banana in the communal fridge. And, say, what is it that these people do, anyway?

"Personal Days" begins in sitcom territory and becomes progressively weirder, culminating in a claustrophobic narratorial meltdown that makes the ground shift under our feet, and not just by pushing the "Lobby" button in the express elevator.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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