Every writer has a collection of influences — the powerful voices that she lays her tracing paper over, hoping to capture some of their inflections. Sometimes, those voices belong to teachers, and the one that rings most loudly in my ears belongs to Robert Cohen.
In "Influence," the final short story in his 2002 collection The Varieties of Romantic Experience, a young novelist says of his mentor, "I'm not the only one of his students who'd been secretly infatuated with the man, who'd learned to see and inhabit the world Elgin's way, with Elgin's loathing and wit, his fierce, arrhythmic music."
As an undergrad at Middlebury, I was one of the many students who hung on Cohen's every word in class, but I suspect I was the only one to hunt down every word he'd written — ordering back issues of Story, Glimmer Train and The New England Review, smuggling them hungrily into my dorm room like the desserts I'd sneak from the dining hall.
I read his stories again and again, then swallowed them whole when, to my delight, they were released in book form, and later I taught them to my own students. But I hadn't gone back to them in a few years, and recently I picked up the book, wondering if perhaps, now that I was older and the sheen of professor-worship wasn't so glaring, the stories might have lost some of their luster.
Nope. If anything, they're brighter than ever.
The title of the collection is a nod to William James, who is quoted in the title story: "There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags ... one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes." Cohen's characters are, of course, these persons, navigating the zigzags with heartbreaking exertion.
They are a young couple trying to get pregnant, a family saddled with the bittersweet birth of a sister with Down syndrome, and a failed business owner stumbling through the twilight of his life at a casino. They are characters for whom an accidental encounter with a stranger can produce a blazing halo of insight, the kind of clarity that makes you snort out loud and shiver in recognition.
But it's Cohen's voice that brings such humor and emotional incisiveness to these characters. Often compared to Bellow and Roth, his prose reminds me more of Chabon's, but perhaps more avuncular, more, yes, professorly, shaping the male Jewish consciousness — in stories with titles such as "The Bachelor Party" — with muscle and irony and nostalgia but also a lacy, ladylike intricacy. His sentences are coarse, crunchy, glutinous, the kind that leave you with seeds stuck in your teeth.
Cohen is a brilliant novelist as well, but if you're new to his work, start with these stories. Read them for their deft characterizations, for their hilarious dialogue of resistance, for both their stylistic ingenuity and their old-fashioned comforts, for their insistence that "we are all in this together, ladies and gentlemen, in a way that would be horrible were it not so comic."
When I read these stories again, I realized with equal parts pride and shame just how powerfully the rhythm of Cohen's voice has shaped mine. You, too, will be happy to be hijacked by the tide of his voice, to ride the fierce, arrhythmic zigzags with him.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.