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Anthology is an excellent way to pass the time

The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms, By the Paris Review, Picador, 400 pp., $15

I road-tested the new themed anthology of work that had appeared in The Paris Review. With a book titled "The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms," it seemed the only thing to do. The anthology's unique organizing premise divides its contents into reads that are appropriately timed for plane, train, or elevator rides and waiting-room sits. Despite the originality of the concept, I found myself ignoring these distinctions as I hugged the book like an emergency-room patient's teddy bear (or any other good book) through airports, motel rooms, and doctor's offices and curled up with it on beds and couches.

I'm happy to report this time-managed anthology works just fine as a conventional start-to-finish reading experience for the usual reason -- the excellence of its pages. Founded in 1953, The Paris Review is one of the best lit mags ever published; Picador, the anthology's publisher, had a treasure chest of quality work to choose from. The contents are an embarrassment of A-level literary riches, including work by Denis Johnson, Edward Jones, Alice Munroe, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Pinksy. (These are the first names that occurred to me in a sentence that could go on three times as long.) If you're a reader of contemporary fiction or poetry, there are almost certainly names here that say "writer" to you.

While Billy Collins's sublimely satisfying poem "Turning Ten" rides to the top of the "Elevators" section -- you'll probably miss your floor, but not care -- I looked forward to the slow unfolding of the longer "Waiting Rooms" fiction. Rick Moody's dissection of the twin towers of modern life, marriage and career, and the weird intersection between them in the wedding staging business ("The Mansion on the Hill") makes you thankful for your own day job, however humble. This story also offers the disquieting image of the chicken mask that Moody's down-and-out business-school grad wears to hustle for the fast-fowl purveyor Hot Bird.

The hard face of modern life shows up in most of these stories. Johnson inhabits the mind of a Narcotics Anonymous graduate who gets well by prowling the Arizona desert and spying on apartment dwellers in the shower. The hero of Munroe's story works for the Home for Mentally Handicapped Adults. The Dominican furniture deliverer who narrates Junot Diaz's "Edison, New Jersey" knows that heavy pool tables go to "the rich suburbs," where he finds a countrywoman virtually enslaved to her employer by a lack of options. In Jones's "Marie," an elderly SSI recipient is summoned to wait in offices by a bureaucrat who is deceased, fights off a purse snatcher with a knife, and unwinds her entire life story for a Howard University student onto tapes that she cannot bear to hear. In Karl Iagnemma's flabbergastingly original "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction," a mathematician devises equations that express the "inventory of love." Despite these "elegant" and cold-blooded formulations, his own behavior in love is no more logical, and no less unhappy, than everyone else's.

Things get a little snappier in the "Trains" section, if not necessarily lighter. In V. P'yetsukh's "Killer Miller" a Russian hit man is too discouraged to pursue his line of work after a tart dressing down by his former PE teacher, whom he has been sent to kill. Who can feel properly menacing after being addressed as "you poor hooky-playing, F-student, good-for-nothing!" by an imperturbably self-righteous gym teacher? Realism is supervened by a postmodernist formalism in stories like J.G. Ballard's appropriately titled "The Index," which consists largely of an index to an unwritten book about an impossibly accomplished newsmaker.

I've always thought waiting-room suspense and serious fiction go together. Art is more than diversion at such times, it's survival. In addition to Moody's tough-minded sendup, the anthology's final section offers the psychological realism of Charles D'Ambrosio's portrait of a mentally disturbed father ("Open House") and Ethan Canin's masterfully constructed fable of the hypocrite in all of us ("The Palace Thief").

This book takes you places even if you just stay at home.

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