Walking Bruises

Tales of sorry schmoes.

GIGANTIC by Marc Nesbitt (Grove Press, $23)

A DEER CORPSE dangles “like a venison pi�” from a railroad bridge in Marc Nesbitt’s story “Quality Fuel for Electric Living,” and the tale’s protagonist—a sanitation worker who spent the night before his first day on the job gulping down whiskey and splitting up with his girlfriend—must remove it. Upon ascending “the forty feet of hill mud and hairy trash, among trees hacked up as knife-sharpened pencils,” the ironically named Nimrod (a “mighty hunter” in Genesis) executes his task by kicking the obstinate carcass in the skull until it becomes a “falling meat bomb.” With a chance glance from his elevated vantage point, he spots his girlfriend kissing a stranger outside her nearby building. He starts a verbal barrage with “YOU BIT-,” but pauses when he hears the approaching train whistle.

Dismal perspectives thread throughout the 10 tales in Brooklyn author Nesbitt’s debut collection, Gigantic. Class, race, and alcohol have the unlucky first-person narrators facing the world with battered egos. The titular story, which placed Nesbitt among The New Yorker‘s 2001 Debut Fiction Writers, follows a zoo worker from his unjust firing to his daylight drinking session. A man of mixed race poses as a human lawn jockey for his bigoted meat-magnate employer in “The Ones Who May Kill You in the Morning,” while the poetry grad student of “Man in Towel With Gun”—a drunk who claims, “Even with a shaved head I can still smell cigarettes in my hair”—ends his exhaustive search for his lover by discovering that she’s been painting in their apartment all afternoon. Like Nimrod, those who rise literally or figuratively must eventually scurry back to a lowly position. Even the nightclub host of “Thursday the 16th,” who manages to coax a reggae singer’s girlfriend under his covers, suffers a violent betrayal after using an unflattering word to describe her figure.

BUT LANGUAGE, not story, is what isolates Gigantic from the average crop of first collections, and it’s also what will cause a reader to either propose the author’s genius or dismiss the book as headache-inducing. A staunch enemy of clich鬠Nesbitt has attempted to tweak his imagery and metaphors in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the results are masterful, as in a booze-soaked moment in “Gigantic”: “Everyone else in the bar races their drinks to their faces, glancing side-eyed like a pie-eating contest.” Other experiments might enhance a poem but clog a short story, like a man who “shifts his weight like a gull on a fence” or the comparison of a house to “an obscenity in a water tank. . . . ” Whatever their merit, Nesbitt’s literary somersaults dazzle most when intermittent; too many sentence-length distractions, as in “The Ones Who May Kill You in the Morning,” prevent the reader from spotting the impact of the larger narrative.

A few of Nesbitt’s tales manage to transcend existential angst and idiosyncratic wording, however. Employing comedy and a car crash, “What Good Is You Anyway?” captures the uneasy relationship between an insecure Mattress Discounter employee and his father, a handicapped man with multiple DWIs. “Gigantic” completes its stumble from run-down zoo to alcoholics’ den to late-night baseball-stadium parking lot with an act of kindness, as the protagonist passes on the cherished rock an elephant once tossed at him. Conversely, “Quality Fuel for Electric Living” closes with a gruesome scene, as Nimrod and his co-workers wash the truck bed that delivered the dead buck: “This hose blows it all off—the skin and bloody hair, the larger chunks of organ—everything, not counting these stringy pieces hanging from the door latch. Or those lumps caught in the gutter’s teeth.” Like most of Nesbitt’s stories, this one ends by offering an impression of the indisposable debris of life. The jarring, uneven Gigantic rarely reaches the immaculate, but it always delivers the raw.