Sometimes browsing the library stacks leads to binge-reading a favorite author that you had sort of forgotten about. Case in point—last time I hung out in the fiction section, I came home with three short story collections by Simon Rich, humorist extraordinaire whose comedic fiction is the perfect blend of hilarious and empathetic.
Rich writes short, precise stories that often put the mundane into the fantastical, or vice versa. The results are enjoyable speculations that graft psychological realism into farcical premises. In one story, not only do we learn how the 12-inch pianist from the famous bawdy joke feels about his existence, but also we see him surrounded by the joke’s other characters, now supportive men having revelations about their relationships with one another and with bar life. What began as locker room talk transforms into a discussion of the strictures of male bravado and heteronormativity. In another story, an antic beginning about the helicopteriest of parents raising an actual demon baby becomes a poignant meditation on the suffocating weight of parental expectations—a compressed coming-of-age narrative about accepting one’s true self.
These specific collections are interesting to read together, because broadly speaking they are chronological in terms of the stages of life. I imagine they track at least somewhat Rich’s own experiences: Spoiled Brats features the misadventures of unsettled young adults, Hits and Misses is about early professional success and failure, and New Teeth explores the travails of domesticity and new parenthood. Under the note-perfect comedy are themes of tolerance, self-acceptance, and the power of making peace with the world around you.
Spoiled Brats allows us to laugh at the self-centeredness of youth; we are old enough to know better than its hapless protagonists. The first story is emblematic—a merciless takedown of an elementary-school version of Simon Rich from the point of view of the class hamster he forgets to feed. (Killer opening line: “They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.”) We are invited to sneer at these “children of millionaires,” who assume the school’s custodian speaks Spanish and whose cosseted self-assurance is turning them into monsters.
In contrast, Hits and Misses positions us alongside its flailing creatives; the laughter is one of self-recognition: Paul Revere’s horse struggles to claim some credit for the famed midnight ride; a musician who never made it finds herself in rehab for the addiction of wanting to get the band back together; a comedian who no longer fits modern sensibilities is an actual dinosaur making punching-down jokes about eating people. In these characters, I see myself—a creative also-ran who deeply appreciates, but can’t quite generate actual art.
However, my favorite of three collections is the deeply compassionate New Teeth. We aren’t laughing at its characters, but alongside them; the humor warmly embraces the confusion of family dynamics and espouses the wisdom that those who irritate us deserve our mercy. As a pair of cutthroat pirates figures out how to balance pillaging and parenting, they wrestle with making space for the indulgences of independence alongside the subtler pleasures of commitment. One of the best stories features a noir detective puzzled by the topsy-turvy world around him—which is not surprising because he is two years old. His salvation comes, like that of many PIs, in the form of a vulnerable dame, as he teams up with his annoying baby sister against a cruel and capricious world. But the one that really sticks with me is the story of a woman raised by wolves, now forced to handle their fraught company during a tense Thanksgiving. As she wonders whether to forgive them for their mistakes, I marvel at Rich’s facility at making metaphors movingly literal. Not every story has a traditionally happy ending, but they all find a note of understanding and grace—and all of it through the kind of funny writing that made me and my family actually chortle, as I couldn’t help but chase them around the house, reading these stories aloud so someone else could share my joy.