THERE MUST BE SOME MISTAKE
By Frederick Barthelme
Little, Brown, 304 pp., $25
A few years past his divorce, cut loose from his job at a design firm, Wallace Webster has a whole lot of time on his hands and not much sense of what he should do with it. In his condominium at Forgetful Bay, on a quiet stretch of Texas coast, he’s living an aimless existence, sleeping by day, wasting nights in the glow of electronic screens.
Emotionally taciturn, he’s beloved anyway by a small posse of women: his college-student daughter; his ex-wife; his stalwart, much younger friend Jilly, whose palpable romantic interest he’s too chicken to return. Instead he takes up with Chantal, a restaurateur with a scary past, and looks on with curiosity as an eyebrow-raising number of their neighbors die unexpected deaths.
This is, as Wallace puts it, “the grotesque spectacle of ordinary life in this century,” and in Frederick Barthelme’s hands, it’s bleak all right — but neither humorless nor hopeless.
By Simon Rich
Little, Brown, 224 pp., $25
In the novella “Sell Out,” the sharp, sweet satire that’s the centerpiece of this collection, a hardworking, nearly penniless young immigrant to New York is accidentally pickled for 100 years. When he’s pulled out of the brine in contemporary Brooklyn, his only relative there is his pampered, 27-year-old great-great-grandson, Simon Rich — one of many spoiled brats in this book.
All are children of privilege, 21st-century-style, and their author, New Yorker magazine contributor Simon Rich, knows of what he speaks. His dad is Frank Rich, the former New York Times critic and columnist. Like his father, Simon went to Harvard. This is his sixth book, and he is only 30.
Rich has a sentimental streak, and his endings can be too neat. But jaded he is not; social commentary, sometimes fueled by anger, underlies much of his humor. He is thoughtful, surprising, and frequently hilarious. He has a heart. And he is using his privilege well.
By Molly Antopol
Norton, 288 pp. paperback, $14.95
The characters in Molly Antopol’s shrewd collection “The UnAmericans” — longlisted for the National Book Award — have histories bound up in political conflict and resulting migration: the Czech hero who in America becomes an absentee father and marginalized academic; the Jerusalem art collector who smuggled hundreds of works out of the Soviet Union, where her former lover was trapped; the Russian-Jewish actor whose marriage and Hollywood career are ruined by McCarthyism.
“Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you?” a woman asks her granddaughter. “These horrible things that happened before you were born.”
The advice comes at the end of the woman’s romance-free reminiscence of war: the tale of how, thrown together in the midst of slaughter, she and her husband wound up together. But in these stories about family, the “horrible things” that befall one generation have everything to do with what comes after.
WOLF IN WHITE VAN
By John Darnielle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $24
“It isn’t really much of a mystery, this occasional need I have to comfort my father. I did something terrible to his son once.” The speaker is a man named Sean, and the life-shattering thing he did was to his teenage self: a gunshot blast to the face that left him, despite intensive reconstruction, gruesomely disfigured.
That’s when Sean started living even deeper inside his head, inventing a quest game that would land him in legal trouble years later, when someone was killed playing it.
All of that becomes clear only gradually in this strange, suspenseful novel by John Darnielle, which unspools in reverse. Like Sean’s game, “Wolf in White Van” — also longlisted for the National Book Award — is about paths taken and not.
JUST CALL ME SUPERHERO
By Alina Bronsky
Translated, from the German, by Tim Mohr
Europa Editions, 240 pp. paperback, $16
Marek, the 17-year-old narrator of Alina Bronsky’s darkly comic novel “Just Call Me Superhero,” isn’t looking his best anymore, ever since a Rottweiler ripped into his face. When his mother tricks him into joining a support group attended by assorted other misfits, he keeps going only because one of them is a beautiful girl.
His mood, as you might expect, is foul — so much so at the start that you may wonder whether he’s worth bearing with. Short answer? Yes. This is a story of redemption, and of learning, slowly, to be comfortable in one’s own skin.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.