Under the 82nd Airborne

Deborah Eisenberg’s stories have a jagged, fragmented quality — shards of dialogue, metaphors bristling with oblique cutting edges. Of all the writers who invaded the chic Manhattan territory populated by earnestly jaded middle-class bohemians during the ’80s, Eisenberg (Transactions in a Foreign Currency) was the thorniest, if not necessarily the funniest. In her new collection, Under the 82nd Airborne, she darts in and out of New York, gathering her baffled, writhing, neatly impaled specimens.

In the longest story, ”Holy Week,” Eisenberg serves us filet of obtuse journalist, a smug middle-aged man who has come to a tense, guerrilla-besieged Central American republic to write about the food and festivities. Since the story is in the form of his diary, the satirical surgery is self-inflicted. Dennis has brought along his latest girlfriend, Sarah (20-odd years younger), and it’s relevant that she has been working on an art-history thesis about Van Meegeren, the Dutch master forger who faked Vermeers and fooled the experts, since the story is about deceptive surfaces and self-deception. While Dennis churns out reasons to be oblivious to the obvious — destitute peasants, sudden disappearances, the death-squad murder of an American priest — Sarah gradually crumples under a sense of complicity. She’s noticed that even an appreciative, liberal-minded American couple, savoring the local food, customs, costumes, and piety, has a certain affinity — woven out of money and freedom — with the crasser tourists and the melancholy feudal banana aristocracy: ”I mean this is a war, Dennis. We’re soldiers, and that’s our uniform.” The story isn’t political in the narrow sense, which is to say that it’s political in the best sense — troubling, not self-congratulatory, and willing to admit that there’s more to life (and politics) than politics.

The title story is also set in Central America, but it’s ”The Robbery,” which takes shape around the frivolous chatter at a suburban dinner party, that similarly skewers both personal and political shallowness. In addition to the standard revelations on such occasions-adultery, snobbery, marital dissonance — a casual racism emerges, forced out by a burglary at the house of an uninvited couple, whose doll collection — dispersed and dismembered in the robbery — provides the story with some ominous symbolism.

Several of these odd-angled stories seem brittle and truncated. Sometimes obliqueness isn’t enough. I thought one about a triangle of cocaine-fueled New Yorkers — dealer, girlfriend, conceited movie actor — would have been much improved if all three of them had been run over by a truck, but I suppose I have an old-fashioned taste for closure.

Apart from ”The Custodian” — about a 12-year-old girl, a professor who wields his charm like a weapon, and the girl’s more sophisticated friend whom he seduces — these stories rely more on Eisenberg’s needling, piercing prose than on dramatic cohesion: ”His clothing looked like a scout uniform from a pornographic movie.” ”The restaurant was the color of dying vegetation.” And here is a ranting writer whose hermetic alienation turns him into a charity case for a young woman newly arrived in New York: ”I think that every really good system has a significant worthless sector. The rotting leftovers on which the healing penicillin mold grows. That’s me.” If you have the appetite for it, this book is a mouth-watering feast of rotting leftovers. B+

Under the 82nd Airborne