I'm not divulging any spoilers when I say that the last sentence in the last story of Joshua Ferris' new collection, "The Dinner Party," is the most important one. It's a question that binds all of these pieces:
"What does a man do - and I mean a real man, now, what does a real man do - when he knows he's done something wrong?"
Plenty of novels, memoirs and cultural studies have explored the end of men or the failings of masculinity. But Ferris, a darkly comic writer who feels like the novelist equivalent of the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, has managed to write a series of stories on the subject that feels fresh. His male characters mess up, in small and spectacular fashion, but their misdeeds often prompt our sympathy, thanks to Ferris' insightful narration. What's even more delightful is that his stories show men behaving badly in the most ordinary settings: an office, a Florida condo building or, in the case of the book's hysterical and yet sad opening piece, a dinner party that doesn't go as planned.
In that titular story, which, like many in this collection, first appeared in the New Yorker, a husband and his wife have prepared two racks of mustard-seasoned lamb and mushroom risotto for another couple. But their guests are running late. The wife, Amy, who is infertile, grows increasingly despondent that her friends, who are expecting a child, either got in an accident or forgot about their dinner party. Maybe, deep down, Amy thinks her friends have a better, more promising life, but maybe, deep down, her husband doesn't care. FOMO - fear of missing out - underpins her desperation and so many others in this book.
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Finally, Amy's husband visits the couple's house, where, much to his surprise, they're doing something else. When he returns home, Amy seems to know her husband is shading the truth, and she punishes him for his patronizing fabrications. How does the husband fix this mess? He has no clue.
My favorite story involves pigs. In "More Abandon (Or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)" the main character stays behind at the office while everyone else has gone home. Pope noses around other people's offices, inspecting their knickknacks, including one woman's workspace adorned with pig pencils, pig notepads, pig stress relievers and just about every other form of pig tchotchke. Ferris, clearly, is having fun with the obvious male metaphor. (Ferris loves satirizing office culture. The Pope piece reads like an outtake from his 2007 novel, "Then We Came to the End.")
As the story unfolds, Pope winds up at another man's desk, where he picks up the phone and leaves desperate voice mails for his office crush, who is married and pregnant. It's here where Ferris elegantly plumbs the comically misguided mind-set of this narcissist, who, at the very least, is aware of his narcissism and, therefore comes off as more decent than he otherwise should.
"Why does her life cast a shadow over his own? Why does her happiness, hers and her husband's, follow him everywhere he goes, quietly qualifying the things that might normally bring him delight?" Ferris writes. "Why does a cab ride through the city without her make him an empty and unrealized dreamer? And since when, and by what right, has he hitched his happiness to hers and forsaken the power to be the source of his own contentedness?"
But what does Pope do when he realizes he's done wrong - that he shouldn't have left all those creepy voice mails for his female colleague?
As in all these stories, Ferris returns us to those pigs, those selfish pigs, in ways we don't expect.
“The Dinner Party: And Other Stories”
By Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown. 246 pages, $26)