Books

book review

When odd things happen to good people

You could say that “Fresh Complaint,” the first short-story collection from Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides (“Middlesex”), is a mop-up operation. It collects tales that have been tucked away in the archives of The New Yorker and other magazines over the past three decades.

Sure, you can track down “Baster,” Eugenides’s droll 1995 saga of sperm-donation intrigue, online. But it’s good to have it and its companions in a single handy volume. It’s also remarkable to see how consistently pointed Eugenides’s prose, humor and observational acuity have been over the years. Throw in his willingness to tackle sticky issues at every opportunity, and you have a heady treat.

The earliest entry in the book, “Capricious Gardens” (1988), is a tastily nasty four-part fugue of lies and delusions. Two middle-aged men vie for the attention of a young American traveler, Annie, while trying to push her lesbian traveling companion out of the picture. A religious relic (“Here it is . . . Direct from Rome. St. Augustine’s index finger”) plays an unlikely role in the attempted seduction.

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“Capricious Gardens” shows Eugenides, only in his 20s, already a canny dissector of confused motivation with a wicked sense of how young women get themselves into trouble: “When Annie flirted she didn’t always admit to herself that she was flirting. Sometimes she preferred to suspend her mental faculties so that she could flirt, as it were, without her mind watching.”

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Other stories offer rueful-comical accounts of well-intentioned people going astray. In “Early Music,” a professional clavichord player’s meager success leads to trouble with a collection agency that wants to repossess the instrument with which he makes his living. His passion for music just can’t translate into a viable existence — especially when he has a wife and children to take into consideration.

In 2005, when the story was written, Eugenides was riding high on the success of “Middlesex.” Still, in “Early Music” he’s painfully aware of what it’s like to have a talent that has won modest recognition but is never going to pay off.

The concerns with the fluid nature of gender and sexual identity that fueled “Middlesex” also get tart treatment in Eugenides’ 1999 story, “The Oracular Vulva.” In it, an “open-minded” American sexologist doing fieldwork in Irian Jaya firmly believes that “sexual shame was a social construct” and is sincerely convinced that “the sacred categories of male and female were, in fact, shams.” But that doesn’t stop him from feeling profoundly uncomfortable about partaking in the local sexual customs. Eugenides, with brainy zest, whisks you right out of comfortable Western assumptions into taboo territory.

“Baster,” a comic masterpiece, does something similar. Narrator Wally Mars, the long-ago ex-boyfriend of 40-year-old Tomasina, fumes from the sidelines with dismay and frustration as his old flame, intent on having a baby, seeks a sperm donor with single-minded fervor.

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“Everyone knows that men objectify women,” he acknowledges. “But none of our sizing up of breasts and legs can compare with the cold-blooded calculation of a woman in the market for semen.”

Wally, who’s five feet four “with buggy eyes and potato nose,” is not among Tomasina’s candidates, and she’s oblivious to how this makes him feel. The tale’s closing twist is Roald Dahl-worthy.

The two most recent stories, “Complainers” and “Fresh Complaint,” address mid-life and late-life crises in thorny fashion. In “Complainers,” a 40-year friendship between two women a generation apart is tested when the older of them is diagnosed with dementia. Cathy, the younger woman, acknowledges she’s “a kind of oddity or interloper” in Della’s life, possessive of her to the point of overriding decisions that Della’s sons make concerning their mother’s care.

In Cathy, Eugenides has created a memorably problematic character. She may be right about what’s best for Della, but she’s also overstepping her bounds. The women’s relationship seems to be compensating for areas of Cathy’s life — marriage, motherhood — that have produced “less contentment than advertised.” Eugenides keeps it ambiguous whether she’s acting on her own needs or Della’s.

Eugenides is always venturesome in the subjects he takes on, nowhere more so than in “Fresh Complaint,” where an Indian-American teenage girl’s resistance to an arranged marriage to a boy from Kolkata is one of the starting points. Prakrti’s scheme for foiling her parents’ plan draws an unsuspecting middle-aged university lecturer into scandal and marital disarray. The story has parallels with David Mamet’s “Oleanna” but with cultural divides complicating the sexual politics in fascinating ways. Where Mamet’s play verges on misogynistic, Eugenides’ tale has a deeper, aching sympathy for both parties.

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Tales of a South Pacific misadventure (“Air Mail”), a dubious father-son business scheme (“Timeshare”), some ugly restraining-order fallout (“Find the Bad Guy”), and smalltime literary-journal embezzlement (“Great Experiment”) round out this fine collection. Eugenides publishes sparingly: just three novels and these 10 stories over 28 years. But he makes each one count.

FRESH COMPLAINT

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 288 pp., $27

Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.