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Gates of Eden Paperback – November 9, 1999
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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A middle-aged man beheads his wife, then calmly explains how she drove him to it . . . A fat little mafioso is going to war--in the clean, well-mannered streets of Minneapolis . . . A Jewish boy watches with wonder the rise and fall of a Hebrew school rebel--and sees the sadness at the heart of his own family. . . . Welcome to the world of Ethan Coen, one half of the filmmaking team that has unleashed a visionary, brutal, and uproarious portrait of America in such screen classics as Fargo and Raising Arizona. Now Ethan Coen translates that vision to the printed page--in fourteen keenly imagined, sharply etched short stories. Blending parody with pathos, making the heinous heartbreaking, Coen demonstrates his unique gift for stunningly inventive narrative, brutal irony, offbeat characters, and crackling dialogue, delivering everything you would expect from such an original imagination.
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Just say the words, and most moviegoers can tell you what you're probably in for.
Crime. Criminals. Mystery. Shenanigans.
The same holds true for "Gates of Eden," a collection of short stories by Ethan Coen, one-half of the brother team (bro is Joel Coen) that created such contemporary classics as "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and, most recently, "The Man Who Wasn't There."
With the short stories in "Gates," Ethan displays the tendency to irresistible characters that the brothers have put to such acclaimed use in their films.
And characters they are. Hapless schmucks, crooks who just don't seem to have a clue, oddballs and hitmen, all of whom are destined to win your heart. Or, at the very least, your funny bone.
The title story is probably my favorite, simply because it examines a career that is usually shucked aside by storytellers in favor of more glamorous work: The weights-and-measures man.
It's Joe Gendreau's job to make sure the gas station attendant isn't overcharging for or skimping on gas; a beating with a tire iron will keep him straight. All in a day's work, ma'am.
Like Joe says, "Standards are what make us a society. A community agrees. A gallon is a gallon. A pound is a pound. He who says fifteen ounces is a pound - he must be put down. A pound is a pound, or we go bango."
Sigh. Coen's use of dialogue makes me weak in the knees. Oh, to have that firm control of dialect.
Other faves in "Gates":
"Destiny": A knocked-out-too-often boxer agrees to take pictures of guy's wife in bed with a business associate, and ends up caught in between two gentlemen of less than civil reputation.
"Cosa Minapolidan": Among other things, a mob boss wants a fresh stiff. But the guys he's got on the job ain't quite right in the head, if you know what I'm saying. And one of 'em's new on the job.
"Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator": Aside from his name, there's nothing out of the ordinary about this private investigator. Coen sets the whole story like it could be an old-fashioned radio drama, and the results are both familiar and fantastic.
"A Fever in the Blood": Next to "Eden," this is the best story in the collection. Another p.i. finds himself deaf in one ear psychologically after having the other one bitten off. Brings the "Twilight Zone" to mind, complete with twist at the end. Perfection.
Anyone in need of a quick pick-me-up or an enjoyably light read can do worse than Coen. Grab your teddy bear, hunker down under the covers after (or in the middle of) a long day and thank your lucky stars you don't lead these sorry souls' lives.
As for the tales themselves, they were each very different, and ranged from typical Coen brothers slapstick crime stories to poignant tales of growing up Jewish in Minneapolis. I really enjoyed "Destiny",the story of an over-educated boxer with no fighting spirit, narrated by Matt Dillon, who becomes hopelessly involved in a battle between a couple of two bit hoods while getting pummeled throughout the story. "The Boys", a story of a father struggling to maintain his sanity on a camping trip with his two sons really struck a chord as well, since Coen displays his typical caustic wit and dead-on observations of family relationships.
The stories are not for everyone, sometimes the language can get a little coarse (especially the Steve Buscemi narrated "Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland", involving a music industry executive who tries telling the police the myriad of enemies who might have tortured his dog), and those easily offended may want to look elsewhere. Even here Coen's biting sarcasm is evident, as he skewers thinly-veiled real stars including Cat Stevens.
Overall, while Coen may never push writers like Raymond Carver out of the pantheon of American Short Story writers, these tales are an amusing bunch, made more entertaining by the considerable vocal talents of each of the narrators. I recommend you give them a try, especially in audio format. The people in the next car will wonder what you are grinning about.
The stories are all brilliant and wry as your twisted sister -- but be advised, you won't want to re-read them because, as with most humor (and most cinema), you'll get everything there is on one go. I suppose they're also really too commercial, read: vulgar, to be fully satisfying.
Nonetheless, I'll wager we'll be reading a lot more of Ethan Coen in the years ahead -- check out his WONDERFUL lyrical little squib on "Winter" in the last issue of the 1998 New Yorker. That miniature uses little dialogue, but notice how it's the best piece of prose in the magazine. Young Mr Coen could become our next Mark Twain.