A midnight caller with nothing to say

Can the short stories of a young New Yorker survive the Atlantic crossing? ; Seduction Theory: by Thomas Beller Abacus, pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
The title and louche red sofa on the cover of this first offering of short stories by American writer Thomas Beller promise prurient delights not borne out by the content. If you're looking for voyeuristic thrills or tips on improving your sexual politics, this is not the book for you. About the hottest chat-up line to be found here is "Well, I like you."

Five stories about men trying to get it right with girls - and failing - are interleaved with five successive episodes in the life of a young Jewish boy called Alex Fader, in a manner presumably designed to rope this collection of stray lives together. It is a curious technique, creating the effect of a fragmented novel continually interrupted by unrelated material.

This "lost" novel is the stronger element, the firmer ground beneath the narrative of these stories suggesting autobiographical components. Beller is better at dealing with the subterfuges of children than those of adults, as he takes Alex Fader through a series of ritual transgressions. Smoking pot, watching forbidden television, hanging around betting shops, going to a 25 cent peepshow: all these are an essential process for Alex in order to stake out territory as separate from his mother's. Notwithstanding this, his relationship with his mother continues to condition each step and he is uncertain of the small freedoms he obtains, finding himself in "a strangely untethered state". Beller manages to capture the pattern of childhood in which every breakaway is countered by a subsequent nervous return to the fold.

The best of these stories shows Alex returning home from college and leafing through his dead father's books. He finds an annotated copy of To the Lighthouse whose unexpected underlinings lead him into speculation about his father's state of mind - he gradually realises that cancer had already been diagnosed at the time his father was reading the book. It is the weightiest subject that Beller takes on throughout this collection and although his prose lacks a density to match, there are accurately judged scenes. Alex's observation of his mother walking along the street, as he ponders the new discoveries about his father, is well handled.

The other five assorted stories generally lack such veracity. In one, a girl has a habit of calling people in the middle of the night and then having nothing to say: these tales have a similar effect on the reader. Things are bleak indeed on the middle-class New York dating scene which Beller's protagonists inhabit; a series of inadequate and self-absorbed men initiating a string of irredeemably gauche exchanges with largely indifferent women.

The high-school prom phrasing that predominates may be just the thing to reflect the banal lives of those it describes, but it is not clear that Beller's own attitude is any more complex than that of his characters, who rarely rise above such thoughts as "Here was this terribly cute girl whose skin shimmered like opal". Seduction Theory is not robust enough to survive the Atlantic crossing.

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