Josh Emmons’s collection A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales gets off to a fast start, mimicking the haste of contemporary life. There is no more lingering in lounge chairs with cigarettes, no more listening to Frank Sinatra. Instead the words fly by, in sentences like this one from the title story which opens the collection: “He passed empty storefronts and Halal butchers and Gypsy kids selling iguanas and a block-long souk with spices like varicolored dunes rippling across linked tables.” That’s a sentence to get a story running. The central character, Bernard, is a serious young man who has failed to get into graduate school. While visiting a cousin in France, Bernard hopes to find a new girlfriend, setting his sights on Sally. We do not find out exactly what Bernard’s future holds, but Sally raises a question that becomes central to the collection as a whole: Is being merciful to another person a matter of lessening pain, or of promoting happiness? Of course, we might answer, “both,” but the question also calls on the characters to consider it.
The beauty of Emmons’s book is its intelligence. The drawback is the chilly veneer of modern life it captures almost too well. In “The Stranger,” a woman named Mia wants to write and produce a screenplay about World War I. From sentence to sentence, the prose is fascinating, but seeing the story as a whole is difficult. Characters crowd the story, and even a minor character, like the falafel sandwich-maker, is described mockingly as “a teenager with a chin-strap beard, nose ring, foundation makeup, gold hoop earrings, Denver Broncos cap, shiny marcelled hair, white button-up blouse, pomegranate lip gloss, and teardrop tattoo in the corner of his right eye.” Since Salinger, we have all loved lists, and this one is hilarious, but it is also dismissive—even mean. Why make fun of modern life? Then again, why not? Readers should be aware that, while Emmons’s work has a beautiful complexity, it is also challenging. He mentions an “accordion-shaped riddle,” a riddle that, I assume, may be closed or opened up, and that is a helpful way to look at these stories—as if they were all accordion-shaped riddles.
One of my favorite stories is “Arising,” which first appeared in the American Scholar. In it, a tiger and a snake debate. The tiger is aware that he has lost his pride—his family—and is ageing. The snake sneaks down from branch to branch until he is more or less eye to eye with the tiger. It is raining, and a flood threatens. We might expect the snake to bite or strangle the tiger, but the snake tells the tiger the old story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The snake even explains how Eve made that choice. He invites the tiger to come with him to Noah’s ark, now that the rain has become a deluge.
But the tiger does not accept the snake’s invitation. No, he is ensnared by his memories and regrets: of his father, his illusions about becoming the tiger he once was, how he lived his life, and where he may have gone wrong. Maybe he should have traveled with the snake. The tiger is, in the end, so human with all his prevaricating that we love him for it, whereas the snake is concerned only with saving himself.
Or there is a two-page short-short titled “Stargazing” that begins with an orgy and ends—how? It’s not clear, but it does leave us thinking. What was the point of this orgy? How could they all stand around like they weren’t being judged? The central character, Jill, thinks this as she flies out of the house. She’s tired of so much—pleasure. Does she die in an automobile accident? Does she get a job? Emmons allows for either possibility.
In another story, an underage male prostitute receives from the woman who picked him up—although there has been no sex—the deed for her house and the title for her car, leaving the youth a fortune. But he’s too young to drive and can’t get back to the city. We hope he has a cellphone.
All these stories present us with moral dilemmas, even when the context is not what we typically think of as moral (e.g., the orgy). They make us examine our own lives and beliefs, and that is always a good thing. The last one, “Agape,” involves a man who joins a commune that is on the verge of splitting into two factions, and he can’t decide which one to join. A woman proposes that they have sex. The story concludes: “Outside, people looked up at the starless night sky to count what was missing.”
A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales is ingenious in its construction of dilemmas and the ways out of them. It heightens our sense of morality as an event and a subject, which we can think about in various ways. Josh Emmons has also published two novels and writes book reviews for major newspapers. He is, as people say, a writer to watch. I know I’ll keep an eye out.
About the Reviewer
Kelly Cherry is author, most recently, of Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer (poetry).