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  • Written by Adam Ross
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On Sale: June 28, 2011
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59675-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

After his widely celebrated debut, Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross now presents a darkly compelling collection of stories about brothers, loners, lovers, and lives full of good intentions, misunderstandings, and obscured motives.

A hotshot lawyer, burdened by years of guilt and resentment, comes to the rescue of his irresponsible, irresistible younger brother. An unsettling story resonates between the dysfunctional couple telling it and their listening friends as well. A lonely professor, frequently regaled with unbelievably entertaining tales by the office handyman, suddenly fears he’s being asked to abet a murderous fugitive. An awkward but nervy adolescent uses his brief career as a child actor to further his designs on a WASPy friend’s seemingly untouchable sister. A man down on his luck closes in on a mysterious, much-needed job offer while doing a good turn for his fragile neighbor, with results at once surreal and hilarious. And when two college kids goad each other on in an escalating series of breathtaking dares, the outcome is as tragic as it is ambiguous.

Laced with glimmers of redemption, youthful energy, and hard-won wisdom, these noirish stories unspool purposefully and fluidly; together they confirm the arrival of—as Michiko Kakutani put it in The New York Times—“an enormously talented writer.”

Excerpt


From Futures



Before the interview—in one of his two appropriate suits, this one a blue pinstripe—David Applelow, aged forty-three, passed the time forecasting: predicting first what his interviewer might look like, hoping for a beautiful woman, not merely attractive but uncommonly gorgeous, who would not only be so kind as to give him a job (that is, save his life) but also to offer herself as an immediate bonus, on the desk or the rug (if there was one) or the chair if it had no arms, her offer an act of the greatest generosity, because this kind of thing, however common to a man’s fantasy, never happened, particularly not to Applelow, and if it were to, he would be surprised for the first time in years.
 
And then he suddenly became self-critical. It was typical, cripplingly typical, Applelow thought, for his mind to wander just before an interview, like being unserious when just the opposite was called for. And so, after a stern, internal upbraiding, a pinch to the crease in his pants, and the discovery and timely plucking of black string sticking out from the heel of his loafer, he considered the questions he might be asked when he finally did step through that door. He hoped to forge an immediate connection with the woman; as on a good first date, they would get beyond the scripted questions and move gingerly toward something more personal, such as his opinions on how things really worked or insights gleaned from his stints as a professional. And then they’d hedge toward the future. She’d talk about the job as if it were his already, about benefits, profit sharing, and salary—a number exceeding even his most optimistic expectations—and thus the accident that had brought him to this office would reveal itself to have been fated.
 
His mind wandered again, and he felt disembodied, adrift. Ceiling high, he watched himself sitting there. Walk, he thought. A soda might give him the boost he needed, but he foresaw a devastating, mid interview belch. He was unbearably hungry. To take his mind off his appetites, he picked up the nearest magazine.
 
When Applelow had arrived earlier, two men were waiting in the reception area. One was younger, in his mid-twenties, underdressed in jeans and a golf shirt, with a résumé in his lap that appeared to be handwritten. He was a bundle of tics, pulling at his nose and snorting repeatedly, as if gathering up enough mucus to hawk it out. The second candidate, an enormous black man in a cheap gray suit, made a production of working on his laptop to pass the time—no easy trick, as his digits were so thick he had to type single-fingered—and then made several calls on his cell phone that Applelow was sure were fake. At one point, he turned to the receptionist, whose nameplate read Madeline, and said:
“Excuse me. A matter of protocol. I have two résumés, one with a more technical focus on my specialty and the other leaning toward more personal qualifications. Is there a particular aspect you’d prefer we stress?”
 
Which told Applelow that he had no competition in the room. Madeline, slowly swiveling around in her chair, replied, “Whichever you’d rather we see.” With a flourish, the man opened his briefcase and reviewed both résumés, then decided on one with a determined nod of the head. The younger man two chairs down from Applelow pumped his heel up and down so fiercely it shook the seat between them. Then he suddenly got up and left.
 
Applelow raised an eyebrow at Madeline.
 
“It’s not the first time,” she said.
 
Gray Suit was called into the office. A few minutes later he too was headed out.
 
It was a chance, Applelow thought, to get some information, because the ad for this job had been mysterious. A few days ago, while searching the classifieds, he’d spilled coffee on the newspaper, the liquid forking out and rejoining to cast one small section of the newsprint into dry relief. He was about to clean up his mess when the headline caught his eye.
 
THE FUTURE IS NOW
 
Are you perceptive, analytical, a troubleshooter? Have excellent interpersonal skills you were never sure how to parlay into $$$? Auratec is a fast-growing, highly selective West Coast company seeking applicants with ability in the abstract to help us start offices in the New York area. Will train qualified candidates. SALARY AND BENEFITS. 401(K). Growth potential unlimited. Fax résumé attention Laura Samuel. 556-1583.
 
“Have you seen a lot of people for the job already?” he asked Madeline.
 
She turned from her computer to give him her full attention. On the wall behind her a sign said Auratec, with an Egyptian ankh in place of the t. “Ms. Samuel has been seeing people constantly.”
 
Applelow waited, smiling.
 
“We’re always growing,” she continued.
 
“It’s a small office.”
 
“Our new one’s being renovated at the Time Warner building.”
 
“Ah,” Applelow said.
 
The phone burbled quietly, but she didn’t answer it.
 
“So is this a sales position?”
 
Madeline winced sweetly. “I’m afraid I can’t give out that information.”
 
Of course not, Applelow thought.
 
Earlier that afternoon, he’d withdrawn twenty-four hundred dollars from his bank account—every cent he had—in hundred-dollar bills. In his current financial straits, he felt the need to have the cash on hand, and there was something liberating about keeping all your assets on your person. He imagined it must be how a camel feels about its hump. Afterward, he walked down Fifth Avenue to the interview feeling strangely confident, among the lunch crowds and tourists. He played catch-her-eye with beautiful women and noted his reflection in shop windows, appearing to anyone concerned like someone who had a place in the world. This heady feeling carried him to the Rockefeller rink, where he stopped to watch the children skate, watched their parents watching them, and stared at the lovers holding hands. But then his mood darkened and he leaned against the railing, crushed with despair.
 
It was not uncommon for Applelow to be poor. He’d made real money during only a few brief stretches. His working life had been a hodgepodge of “professions”—a few years as a corporate speechwriter, as an assistant to a literary editor, as a set builder for a film-production company. Not every job he’d had was a dead end, but none had ever gelled into anything that could be called a career. He’d spent the last six years managing a small off-Broadway theater company called The Peanut Gallery, founded and funded by an actor named Jason Heywood Green, whose career in independent films, despite sterling reviews, had lately taken a dive. “I’m playing the heavy in the Mission Impossible sequel just to make my mortgage payments,” he’d told Applelow. “My accountant says I’ve got to trim some fat.” So, in the blink of an eye, the place where Applelow thought he’d spend the next decade of his professional life was shut down, and after his unemployment benefits ran out he burned through what little savings he had in a matter of months. The company had done three productions every year, and he’d handled everything from marketing and advertising to set building and accounting. There was almost nothing with which he hadn’t had some sort of experience, but his applications went unanswered and the terrible economy didn’t help. It was a world, he was realizing, divided between the specialized and the unspecialized, the job titles all the more convoluted the less specialized they were. Applelow was starting to fear that this recent turn of events was in fact the beginning of a slide into unrecoverable failure. You should have seen this coming, he thought.
 
Madeline’s intercom chimed. “Yes, Ms. Samuel?”
 
“If I don’t eat soon,” the voice said, “I’m going to kill somebody.”
 
Madeline looked at Applelow and shrugged her shoulders apologetically. She turned off the intercom, and picked up the handset. “Yes,” she said, lowering her voice. “No, he doesn’t.”
 
“I can wait,” Applelow whispered.
 
But the door was already opening.
 
“It’s an eclectic résumé,” Ms. Samuel said.
 
“That’s how I like to think of it,” Applelow answered.
 
To call Ms. Samuel gorgeous would have been a titanic understatement. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen: young, blonde, twenty-eight at most, and positively tiny—maybe five foot two in heels—with owlish gray eyes. Everything in her office radiated a spare, modern seriousness, yet her demeanor was disarmingly warm. She listened to Applelow’s initial answers with a polished professionalism, but when their banter turned light, she punctuated it with musical little tee-hees.
 
“Feature film releasing?” she asked.
 
“B-picture distribution,” Applelow said. “This was to theaters in the Times Square area. Horrible stuff. Apache Ninja. Jailhouse Jane. This was a long time ago. Back in the late eighties.”
“It says here you were VP of the whole division.”
 
“Well, there was just the boss and me. We were the whole company. Consequently, I was VP of everything. VP of phone, VP of faxes. VP of copies.”
 
Ms. Samuel tee-heed. Snorted loudly.
 
He loved her.
 
“Canvassing coordinator,” she said. “Tell me about that.”
 
“It was a fund-raising campaign for toxic-cleanup legislation on Long Island. You’ll see I grossed more in donations that year than anyone else in my division. It was pure sales—one of the great think-on-your-feet jobs. Take information about an issue, then develop your own rap out of it. Leave a stranger’s door with money.”
 
Applelow was on the ball. He didn’t sell his good qualities too hard. Without sounding like a liability, he addressed weaknesses that could be transformed into strengths. When they talked about his tenure at the theater company he was so on point he would have hired himself. It was a waltz, Applelow thought, with Ms. Samuel leading, but it was also like dancing in a pitch-dark room. What was the job?
 
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s take this in another direction.” Ms. Samuel came around to the front of her desk and leaned against it. “Do you put much stock in astrology?”
 
“The science?”
 
Ms. Samuel started pacing. “Zodiac, stars, the whole thing. Do you believe it has any merit at all?”
 
This question gave him serious pause. Could she be a horoscope nut or a chart maker? What if astrology was her personal religion?
 
“I’m an Aquarius,” he answered safely.
 
“Terrific. I’m a Leo. But do you buy it?”
 
If he didn’t, was he out of the running? If he did, was he a loon? “Sometimes,” he said.
 
“Meaning what?”
 
“Meaning,” he continued, “that if I’m on line at the supermarket, I’ll give my horoscope a glance.”
 
“Aha,” she said, and pointed at him.
 
“But it’s not a daily thing,” he assured her.
 
“But when you do look at it,” she said, “and the forecast is negative, what’s your reaction?”
 
“Honestly?” She didn’t look offended by this. “I discount it,” he answered truthfully.
 
“Exactly. What about a good forecast?”
 
“Then things are looking up!” he said, and smiled.
 
When Ms. Samuel didn’t smile back, he became serious again. Listening.
 
“What about tarot?” she said, pacing. “Ever consult the cards?”
 
“No.”
 
“The prophecies of Nostradamus?”
 
“Haven’t read him.”
 
“Believe in past lives? Reincarnation? What about karma?”
 
Already this was the strangest interview of his whole life. “No to all three.”
 
“What about ESP?”
 
I want to fuck you cross-eyed.
 
Ms. Samuel waited impassively.
 
“Not anymore,” he said.
 
“All right. Let’s try this one.” She pressed her index finger to her mouth and tapped it.
 
It was like the moment in a play, Applelow thought, right before the offstage gunshot.
 
“Have you felt,” she said, “for a long time, perhaps for as long as you can remember, that something good was coming your way? You couldn’t say what it might be, but you’ve always believed it.”
Applelow’s heart was racing.
 
“Have you believed that this life—right here, right now—wasn’t the one you thought you’d be living?” She leaned toward him. “That there was something bigger for you. You were sure of it. You are sure of it. Do you know what I’m talking about, David? Do you know what I mean?”
 
He felt himself pressing into the chair back. Looking at her was like looking into brilliant light. “Yes,” he said.

“Good,”
she said. “Good, David. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Adam Ross|Author Q&A

About Adam Ross

Adam Ross - Ladies and Gentlemen

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Adam Ross lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and their two daughters.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Adam Ross
author of LADIES AND GENTLEMEN



Q: In 1995, your father told you a story about your cousin that inspired you to start writing your first book, Mr. Peanut. Was there a particular event or idea that inspired the stories in Ladies and Gentlemen?
A: There wasn’t a single event that inspired me, though as I was writing the collection I was orbiting certain themes—cruelty, the flight from self-awareness, role playing, and the relationship between the storyteller and the listener. However, there absolutely were actual events, images, or anecdotes that informed each story. “Futures,” for instance, was partially inspired by my brother’s girlfriend’s claim that she could read people’s auras, that she  saw this nimbus of color that she could interpret with telepathic accuracy; she told me this with so much conviction and specificity that it was hard not to believe her. “The Rest of It” arose from a macabre tale my close friend’s father told me about a gruesome experience he had answering a distress call while sailing in the Caribbean. “The Suicide Room” grew out of apocryphal tales I’d heard at Vassar about certain boarded up dorm rooms where students had supposedly taken their own lives. I could go on, but the seed is always something very specific and vivid that I'm not able to shake for one reason or another.  


Q: The book’s epigraph comes from George Eliot: “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.” How does her observation relate to the collection?

A: Nearly every character in Ladies and Gentlemen is presented with the opportunity to be cruel—to cause another person pain knowingly, and even to enjoy that pain. Whether they seize that chance or not offers them the concomitant opportunity to gain control of their lives, to know themselves more fully, and hopefully become better people. The heroes in this collection are the ones who either resist the temptation to be cruel or recognize the chance to be good when it arises. They’re the characters most in tune with themselves, most “in the moment,” as the narrator observes toward the end of “Middleman,” and their reward is a firmer sense of self. “For the first time in my life,” says the narrator in ‘The Suicide Room,’ “I started to feel whole. Because from that night forward, as often as possible, I began asking myself: What are you doing? This isn’t to say I necessarily do the right thing. It just means that I can’t say I didn’t think about it.”


Q: How did you decide the order in which the stories in Ladies and Gentlemen should appear? In what ways do the characters in one story help us to understand or appreciate characters in another?  
A: I shuffled the order several times in the run-up to publication, to the exasperation of my editor, actually.  I think of collections like albums, with the first story being like an overture. For me, “Futures” included all the themes I was thinking about as I was writing the collection, but with a social/political dimension that the other stories explore in the private sphere. The book builds toward and ends with the title story, which has a cliff-hanging conclusion. The protagonist is faced with a choice, and how she weighs her possible decisions has less to do with what’s right, I think, than with our fraught relationship to time in this hyper-frenetic age. In other words, the last story is like a mirror for the reader: What would you do if you were her? The answer should tell readers something about themselves.


Q: There are so many interesting people in this book, ranging from a professor and a maintenance man, to adult brothers, to strangers who meet on a plane. Are there any characters you are particularly fond of or had an especially good (or difficult) time writing about?
A: I loved writing about David Applelow, the job-seeker in “Futures,” because he so completely embodies that distinctly American belief that our future is bright, that it’s somehow insured or guaranteed, that better things are coming our way at a time when it’s nearly a sin, to paraphrase Saul Bellow, to still believe so innocently that this is true. Sara, the journalist in the title story, is brilliant at getting people to divulge information. I also loved the narrator’s voice in “Middleman,” whose diction is half Jewish modernist, half voice-over pitchman, and had a gas with his love interest, Elsa, who drops SAT-words every chance she gets. Caleb, the narrator of “When in Rome,” occasionally gives away his own self-interest, and working with these levels of dramatic irony are always the best part of writing in the first person. Donato, the maintenance man in “The Rest of It,” is a great storyteller, as are Nicholas and Will, characters who wrestle for control of the narratives in “In the Basement” and “The Suicide Room,” respectively, and when  writing from their points of view I felt like I could range almost anywhere. The truth is, I grew fond of them all once I figured out how they talk, who they really are, and how to write about them.  However, the process of arriving there can be miserable.  


Q: Even with all of their flaws, do you feel a certain sympathy for the antagonistic characters like Zach from “Futures,” Nicholas from “In the Basement,” or Kevin from “When in Rome”?
A: To me, it’s not a question of sympathy but roundedness. I’m trying to render these characters fully, however unpalatable their behavior might be at times. It’s been my experience that we rarely find people entirely unpleasant or antagonistic, because we recognize aspects of ourselves in them.  What’s interesting about the characters you mentioned is that each one has been witness to, or is given the opportunity to participate in, betrayal. Nicholas’s past transgressions inform the story he’s telling his guests and make him vulnerable to the narrator’s cruelty at the end, and this is where the theme of storytelling comes in, because we sometimes use stories other people tell against them, picking apart their sensibilities or assumptions to our own benefit. Kevin might not be a good guy, but he’s also very aware of the fact that his brother, Caleb, is no angel either—something the latter has a nasty habit of forgetting. David Applelow, the protagonist in “Futures,” is trying to help Zach get his life on track by telling him about his own failures, but struggles throughout to wash his hands of the boy, and part of the story’s suspense is built around this tension.  


Q: Two of the main themes in Ladies and Gentlemen are trust and betrayal and the complex ways that they affect relationships. Why is it that we always give people close to us “one more chance,” like Caleb does in “When in Rome”?

A: Maybe because we know we’re all sinners and hope somebody will give us one more chance when that truth is revealed. I’ll put it in another way: there’s a big difference between someone thinking, “I’m going to give that person another chance,” and saying, “I’m going to give you [or someone else] another chance.” In the latter case, things start to get slippery and interesting because the teller is either hyper-aware of his or her audience or unwittingly revealing something. I try to explore that difference in all the stories.


Q: Jacob, the main character in “Middleman,” seems to have a few things in common with you: you were both child actors who grew up on the Upper West Side and went to the Trinity School. How else are you and Jacob similar?

A: There are probably more dissimilarities. He’s much nicer than I am, first of all. Also, both of my best friends had beautiful older sisters, not just one, so my adolescence was spent moving through doomed love. I didn’t give a thought to my own religious heritage (or lack thereof) when I was that age, whereas Jacob is fixated on it. There were, however, many kids at the Trinity School who were every bit as precocious as the character Abe. To this day, I remember a story that J.M. Maas, son of Serpico-author Peter Maas, read aloud in seventh-grade English, about a dying astronaut adrift in his capsule, the ship running out of oxygen, and it was utterly riveting. There was a poem that future screenwriter Zak Penn wrote called “Thought Takes a Walk” about a trip the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego take one day that ended with the memorable line: “Ego was always getting in the way.” Another classmate had re-read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain multiple times by the age of ten. As a freshman, Pat McEnroe had a backhand that was the envy of any touring pro. New York City can be as provincial as any hick town, but its private schools are certainly hotbeds of adolescent sophistication and oversize talent, for better and for worse.  Growing up with a father who was an actor, and acting myself,  I did have some really interesting experiences,  and it was fun to write about doing “The Eternal Light” radio program, for instance, because it’s a vanished world that I was lucky enough to get to participate in.


Q: What’s next for you?

A: I have two novel ideas that are locked in mortal combat. One will emerge victorious.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Ross studies families and couples in volatile combinations . . . Punches are thrown between brothers, wild dogs go on the attack, and someone gets pistol-whipped. Conversations lead out of the polite shallows into confrontation . . . For both the married and the divorced in [these] seven stories, full of reversals and surprise endings, potential catastrophe is always closer than you think.” —Brian Miller, Seattle Weekly
 
“Riveting and affecting—the work of an author who has the rare ability to mesmerize and move us . . . Suspenseful, humorous and, at times, noirish, [Ross] crafts smooth sentences and can make you laugh out loud without ever undermining or selling out the poignancy of his stories . . . Irresistible.” —Skip Horack, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Masterfully constructed . . . Skillful but never showy, [Ross’s] highly polished, somewhat spare prose . . . gives these stories a beauty and clarity that are strangely at odds with [their] grim vision . . . Ladies and Gentlemen is a book that bears, even demands, rereading.” —Maria Browning, Chapter 16

“Traditional stories, written in precise and plainspoken prose . . . What makes them electrifying is the author’s knack for luring his characters into emotional danger . . . Ross may yet rehabilitate the term ‘literary thriller.’” —Steve Almond, The Boston Globe
 
“Irresistible . . . Ross’ stories, entertaining and even slick on the surface, have troubling undercurrents that drag the reader out into uncharted waters . . . [they] take hold early and don’t let go: it’s almost impossible to start reading them and not need to finish.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
 
“Dazzling and brutal . . . a joy-ride through [Ross’s] dark but sparkling imagination . . . .[He is] as skilled at telling as he is at showing [the] frightening but relatable machinations of jealousy, laugh-out-loud bouts of gore, and the emotional elasticity that comes from isolation or the absence of love . . . He is a ruminative writer with an arsenal of explosives always at the ready.” —Liz Colville, The Daily
 
“Old-fashioned, almost O. Henryesque tales that point up Mr. Ross’s extraordinary gifts as a writer . . . Not only does [he] possess glittering powers of description and a heat-seeking eye for emotional and physical detail, but he’s also able to capture the way people talk today with fluency and panache [and] is adept at showing the day-to-day stresses and consolations of marriage and mapping the mutations of love over time.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“Truly funny, original, acerbic [and] surprising . . . Ross deftly dissects how our best efforts to establish intimacy or better ourselves in the economy can result in excruciating, if hilarious, humiliations.  Amusing morality at its compulsive, can’t-wait-to-pick-it-up-again best.” —Sheila Anne Feeney, AM New York
 
“Bitingly funny . . . Ross limns the ills of contemporary Americans, so vividly rendering their problems and anxieties that the effect is unnerving and heartbreaking . . . It is the precision of [his] dark and dazzling prose, often laced with a touch of the surreal, that generates the stories’ intensity and makes them so disquieting.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
 
“Following his dazzling debut, Ross drops seven more doses of disquieting fears and misleading hopes [in] this fierce collection . . . One of Ross’ great strengths is walking that eternally fine line between showing the reader things and the heartbeat monitoring of a character’s internal life . . . These characters are either untethered by their own vividness or weighed down with all the trouble in the world. In either case, it’s impossible to look away.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred
 
“A superb book. These stories are packed with exquisite characters, their lives swollen with the past and bursting in the present. Tales about neighbors and desire, about college hijinx and brotherly rivalry, about old flames and new ones— this collection is masterfully written, gripping, unforgettable.” —Tom Rachman

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