The Varieties of Romantic Experience: Stories
by Robert Cohen
A review by Stephen Amidon
The formidable comic energy of Robert Cohen's new short-story collection derives from the collision of his magnificently self-deceiving characters with the unforgiving world they inhabit. From the psychology professor whose lecture turns into an unintentional admission of his obsession with a student intern to the man imprisoned for taking nude photos of a nine-year-old family friend for his night-school course, Cohen's characters move with the best of intentions toward their worst-case scenarios. Even when they don't come completely undone, they find themselves unceremoniously stripped of their illusions. In "A Flight of Sparks" an aging hippie takes off on a misbegotten journey to Mexico in search of a dying friend's long-lost daughter, only to discover that he has embroiled himself in another man's fantasies. And in "Influence," a witty illustration of Harold Bloom's theory that authors willfully misread one another, a writer-in-residence at a small New England college invites his literary idol for a visit that quickly unravels the knot of mutual deception that has bound them together for so long.
Cohen balances this robust black comedy with moments of quietly profound feeling. In "The Boys at Night" the arrival of a baby with Down syndrome throws into a family an emotional hand grenade that explodes during a bowling expedition, leaving the young narrator with a new appreciation of his aloof father. In "The Bachelor Party" a singularly inept prenuptial bash winds up unexpectedly at the Houston Astrodome, where the groom-to-be movingly asserts his belief in marriage before a crowd of oblivious Astros fans. The real variety on display here turns out to have less to do with romantic experience than with Cohen's ability to evoke seemingly contradictory emotions, often in the course of a single paragraph.
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