I'd never heard of this guy and almost didn't pick up the book due to its awkward cover, but boy was I glad I did. Boudinot has written some of the most entertaining short fiction I've come across in quite a while. This isn't your pitch-perfect Raymond Carver, John Cheever stuff, nor is it unreadable experimentalist riffing. Rather, this is somewhat skewed, oddball storytelling that gets a little nerdy without ever getting too precious or angsty or anything like that. I guess the closest comparison I would make in tone is to some of music writer Chuck Klosterman's better essays.
About half of the stories occupy a fairly realistic everyday American landscape -- albeit one in which very strange things happen. A good sense of the collection's tone can be found in the title story, in which a 9-year-old boy with a clueless single father is inspired by too much History Channel to dress up as Hitler for Halloween. Maligned by adults and classmates (including the class belle, who is costumed as Anne Frank), he struggles to understand what the fuss about his outfit is since, as he puts it, Hitler was "a really, really mean guy", and therefore, perfectly suitable as a Halloween monster. The story ends with a bang on the last line, as does the following one, "On Sex and Relationships." This story satirizes a pair of wealthy Seattle dot-com yuppie couples whose friendship has drifted a little over the course of a year. Boudinot effortlessly creates a millennial-era"Big Chill" vibe and again ends things with a killer last line. "The Flautist" follows a flute player who works for a factory studio operation and plays a flute owned by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame. It starts with a great first line ("I can really bust **** out on a flute.") and goes on to describe an atypical day in his life. Perhaps the strongest story is "So Litttle Time", about a trio of boys who work as field laborers one summer in order to save up money to go to a Dr. Who convention. One of them is trailer-park poor, which leads to some interesting situations and a vivid ending.
Other stories are set in a world very much like our own, but with crucial fabulist twists, many of which involve some seriously dark humor and violence. For example, "Bee Beard", is a pretty straightforward deadpan office farce driven by the conceit that a woman come to work draped with a beard of live bees. The two parts of "Blood Relatives" are Tales From The Crypt-like takes on classic American suburban parents. Without spoiling the surprise and fun, I'll just say that the key word in the title is "blood"... The story "Containment" would be a straightforward portrait of blue-collar workers at a frozen food factory were it not for the fact that one of the workers is a zombie. The premise of "Civilization" is that some teenagers are selected to kill their parents in order to maintain population control, and the story takes us through one such selectee's pregame jitters. "The Sales Team" is, as the first paragraph puts it: "what I'm about to tell you is a carbon copy of [Glengarry Glen Ross], so if you've seen it there's probably not that much new here for you, except that in Glengarry Glen Ross there's no attempted rape."
The stories are about 10-15 pages each, with the exception of "Absolute Boudinot", a page and a half throwaway piece. For the most part, the writing is crisp, readable, and compelling. Which is not to say the book is perfect (very few story collections are top to bottom flawless), three of the stories failed to lead me anywhere satisfying. The protagonist of "Drugs and Toys" is the proud proprietor of a family-owned drug store, and a seeming community fixture. However as the story unfolds, a sense of unease and creepiness starts to seep in, but the story lacks any kind of punchline. "Written by Machines" follows a programmer at a Seattle dot-com who becomes obsessed with an ex-colleague's amazing software code, and just kind of trails off. "Newholly" is a familiar story about a gentrifying dude who's trying to live out his liberal ideals in a mixed-income neighborhood. The conflict comes with his struggle over what to do about his child-beating Somali immigrant neighbor.
Tempting as it might be, this is not a collection to race through greedily. Rather, it's to be savored and rationed, because when it's over, there is no more. The humor ranges from laugh-out-loud to grim, and through the subject matter can be quite outrageous, Boudinot is always firmly in control of every line. This is one I'll be rereading for years to come and I look forward to his next book.