"Ladies and Gentlemen: Stories" by Adam Ross. Random House. 241 pages. $26.
Life constantly presents a series of choices, but it could be argued we cannot be certain whether we make our decisions or our decisions make us. Adam Ross slyly approaches many versions of this conundrum with trademark dark humor in "Ladies and Gentlemen."
This short-story collection by the Nashville resident is an impressive addition to a year filled with the publication of notably strong short-story collections. The genre is particularly well suited to Ross' style and thematic throughline as each story leads us into a society in which relationships seem to be built on false trust created by conmen in order to take in an endless supply of chumps.
The tool for developing such false relations seems to be a manipulation of anxiety about finances, love or family. Finance in a weak economy fuels the story line in "Future" as Appelow's desperation for respect and a well-paying job makes him putty in the hands of a desperate petty thief. More publicly, he becomes unwitting prey to a humiliating "punk'd" experience with a reality television show.
Career respect also is on the mind of a middling English professor who is licking his wounds after a marriage breakup that he perceives was caused by his lack of financial and creative success. In "The Rest of It," he is at his lowest point and susceptible to being taken in by a fast-talking college custodian whose wild stories lead him on a vicarious thrill ride that blurs the lines of reality and fantasy.
Concerns about financial parity between partners also leads to a mild-mannered but latent slap-fight among couples who like none of those with whom they falsely pose as friends "In the Basement."
Not just the finances but the fires of passion lead characters to take unwise risks in "Ladies and Gentlemen," notably the only story here with a female narrator. In this tale, jet-setting entertainment journalist Sara considers risking a relatively comfortable marriage for the sake of even higher flying thrills that could lead her back on an imagined lark to her imagined golden days of college.
Young Jacob also is taken in by a fantasy relationship as this middle-schooler seeks greener pastures in the lives of his friends. He sets his sights on a friend's beautiful older sister, trying to use his experience as a bit voice-over actor to reel in the beguiling beauty. He takes her obvious manipulation as a crumb of hope for a real relationship, ultimately mixing the role of conman and conned in an uncertain waltz.
And the love of family proves to be the greatest blinder of all in the particularly compelling story "When in Rome." When an otherwise shrewd lawyer lets down his guard in an attempt to develop a relationship with his younger brother, he is taken in to the point of physical danger and financial loss in yet another of his sibling's scams. Arguably the strongest story in the book, "Suicide Room," questions the nature of life. Pot-infused college bravado goes too far and proves pride has great consequences. Ultimately the students are served the unforgettable lesson that, despite anything they may have gleaned from a freshman philosophy course, we do often have control over our actions, which can have perilous outcomes.
As with all short-story collections, some of Ross' are stronger than others. But by and large, this unflinching series captivates the viewer with disturbing questions and intoxicatingly tense scenarios of "Ladies and Gentlemen."
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.