Elliot Perlman is a barrister in Melbourne, Australia. His literary page-turner "Seven Types of Ambiguity" was a cerebral psychological thriller...

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“The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming: Stories”
by Elliot Perlman
Riverhead, 277 pp., $24.95

Elliot Perlman is a barrister in Melbourne, Australia. His literary page-turner “Seven Types of Ambiguity” was a cerebral psychological thriller with a Rashomon-like look at obsessive love. His new collection of short stories, “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming,” features characters defending their lives or the lives of others in a series of stories that raise moral questions about various modes of obsession.

Deceit and disillusionment is the order of the day in the opening story, “Good Morning, Again.” A brief six pages, it is a fierce dramatic monologue delivered at 4 a.m. in which a first-person narrator, a naked “new friend” beside him, justifies a breakup with a former lover. The second story, the poignant “In The Time of the Dinosaur,” is a tale of adultery told from the limited perspective of a young boy. Another ill-fated affair is at the center of “Your Niece’s Speech Night.”

Legal rhetoric is the basis for two of the stories, “Manslaughter” and “The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine.” The first, one of the longer stories in the group (45 pages), is not as effective as the second (13 pages). “Manslaughter” follows a jury trial in painstaking detail. “The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine” is a cleverly designed story in which a “suited man with suitably qualified opinions” pleads his case of a lost love in terms of conditions of agreement, breach of contract and cause for damages.

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The title story, “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming,” loads a great deal of information in nine pages. It is another lawyer-based tale grounded in legalese. While a probate lawyer gives reasons for declining an invitation to a black-tie party for friends, his own failing marriage is going through its own form of probate.

Unsuccessful romances are featured in two of the later stories. The intriguingly but verbosely titled “I Was Only In A Childish Way Connected To The Established Order” focuses on another case of adultery. A poet obsessed with the life and lines of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam suffers traumatic victimization before he redeems himself in an act of supreme selflessness. One of the weakest stories, “Spitalnic’s Last Year,” rambles through the romantic history of a university student’s “lunchtime circle” and family medical crises.

Family woes in various guises are at the center of the compelling novella-length “A Tale In Two Cities” (82 pages) which closes the collection. Twenty-eight-year-old Melbourne bookstore clerk Rose Gamarkin hires an inexperienced private investigator, Bernard Leibowitz, to find her missing brother, Pavel.

For most of the story she keeps this information from their parents, emigrants from 1960s Russia. The novella gives vivid firsthand accounts of a difficult childhood in Moscow (the other of the two cities) spent waiting in endless queues for socks or to visit Lenin’s tomb, and of thwarted attempts to leave Russia. When Rose and Bernard unravel the mystery of Pavel’s disappearance, the resolution provides domestic peace and redemption of the highest order.

The nine stories serve as a varied introduction to an accomplished stylist and storyteller. Start with these or tackle the invigorating narrative of Perlman’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity.” Both present satisfying rewards for the discerning reader.