Jonathan Lethem is a slippery writer. His first book, "Gun, With Occasional Music," published in 1994, was science fiction mixed with noir. His subsequent work...

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Jonathan Lethem is a slippery writer. His first book, “Gun, With Occasional Music,” published in 1994, was science fiction mixed with noir. His subsequent work continued to bend genres, but science-fiction fans still claimed him as one of their own.

In 1999 he went literary semi-mainstream with “Motherless Brooklyn,” an off-kilter detective novel featuring a narrator with Tourette’s syndrome. Esquire magazine tagged it as the novel of the year, and it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Next thing you knew he was hanging out with the McSweeney’s crowd.

Four years later he came out with the proverbial big book, “Fortress of Solitude,” a fully mainstream epic about Brooklyn, race, music and everything else in Lethem’s head.

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“Men and Cartoons: Stories”


by Jonathan Lethem

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“Men and Cartoons,” however, suggests that Lethem is currently content to be the Coen Brothers of fiction: smart, imitative, original, indulgent and just popular enough to stay in business.

“Access Fantasy,” a weirdly satirical detective story of sorts, calls to mind Lethem’s early SF work, while “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door,” featuring a suicidal sheep, published in 2002, won a Pushcart Prize.

My personal favorite, “The National Anthem,” an epistolary story about the pain of growing up and the perils of philandering, was published in the Los Angeles literary magazine Black Clock and reprinted in Lit Riffs (a short-story collection based on popular songs), but I thought it belonged in the New Yorker. “Super Goat Man,” which concerns a superhero and ’60s casualties, struck me as the least likely story to get Lethem in the New Yorker. However, it was published in there this year.

Go figure.

As a whole, this collection never gathers momentum or weight. However, there are many memorable moments and quotable lines, including this one that summarizes Lethem’s style: “One small step from the foyer, one giant plunge into the abyss.”