Magnificent Bastards, By Rich Hall

There's a lot of good comic material in this collection. Perhaps it could have been stretched further
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After his first volume of humorous short stories, Things Snowball, the comedian Rich Hall was likened to two giants of the oeuvre, David Sedaris and Woody Allen. Magnificent Bastards helps reinforce the American's claim to their figurative companionship and begs the question, "So when is the novel out, Rich?". Stories such as "Fifty Cent Words", the tale of a young boy who soaks up his father's boastful business blarney and then outstrips him, feel more like an establishing chapter for a longer work. Similarly, "Prairie Dogs", which sees a social outcast regain his family home by insidiously manipulating the couple who now live there, throws up characters and situations ripe for expansion.

Of course, such expansion would risk going beyond the joke. Hall's characters do just enough to be funny but not so much as to go past their punch line or sell-by date. While there is room for manoeuvre, however, there are plenty of other ideas here that could be housed only by short refrains: the business manual written by a "golf sale" sign-holder, the throwaway sketch of a girl who holds wild parties for her thousands of MySpace followers, and the story "Werewolf of London" in which Hall riffs on the subject of the Warren Zevon song and thereby samples it in a way that Zevon's fans will find more palatable, perhaps, than Kid Rock's musical attempt with "All Summer Long".

Always one of the more eloquent stand-ups on our circuit (Hall divides his time between his native Montana and the UK but numbers among the British comedy world's adopted sons), Hall's prose is nimble, cute and clever. One of his characters feels humiliation hanging on him "like a sandwich board" while another receives a letter, mocking in tone, that "was like a seashell. You opened it and you could hear them laughing."

Bittersweet imagery abounds, in the midst of which Hall manages not to undermine the gravitas of his flawed central characters. In "Fifty Cent Words", for example, the young boy in the story walks through housing estates named after "some distorted version of European Romanticism. Breton Acres. The Cotswolds. Stonehenge. Valhalla. Napoleon's Retreat. The Bridge at Remagen." It's our world, just slightly skewed and slightly skewered. The collection is also infused with the sights, sounds and smells of an America either rural, off-the-beaten-track or plain forgotten. Hard-luck stories from tough lives often explain the meanness of the central protagonist, while the penultimate yarn, "Best Western", makes the most salient political point of the book with its story of a crooked road-builder smashing into what is already a fractured family business.

Though some of the shorter stories yield less engrossing content and some endings are abrupt, there's a pleasing overall momentum to Magnificent Bastards and some equally satisfying new maxims. For example, if you've ever wondered why us Brits keep on using the phrase "At the end of the day", Hall is on hand to explain that: "British forward thinking ends at sundown. They just want to get through the day so they can start drinking." Hall also contends that "the ability to laugh and owning a sense of humour are distinctly separate things." The ownership of this collection may help you have both.