Quite possibly you've never considered the technical and political difficulties of restoring severed genitalia to statuary in the Vatican art collection. Most likely you've never fully understood the relationship between a prostitute, a pimp, Papa Hemingway, and an artificial marlin as they relate to an aborted German plan to invade Cuba in late 1943. Chances are you've never entirely worked through the social consequences of living past your genetically determined date of death. Regardless, The Best Known Man in the World and Other Misfits will leave you mesmerized.
Pearlman has the gift of a natural storyteller. Despite having followed a self-destructive course by obtaining advanced degrees in English literature and by teaching creative writing at a university, he has succeeded in retaining that storytelling talent, and even burnishing it somewhat over time. The twelve stories collected here are each unique and unconnected with each other -- quirky, unexpected, and unpredictable. They're also tough to categorize, unless you'll allow me to punt and just call them "intelligent fiction." Pearlman prefers to use the label "literature of the fantastic," by the way.
Whatever you choose to call them, they make an impressive collection. In "The Best-Known Man in the World" Pearlman examines the life of William Eliot Goldsmith, who aspires to establish his place as a world renowned famous poet by obsessively recording every detail of his life for posterity. Pearlman is a master at engaging opening lines, and this story is no exception:
"At age five, on approaching the last lick of a super-delicious popsicle, William Eliot Goldsmith experienced his first inkling of the transiency of earthly delights. Resisting the inevitable, he stowed away as a keepsake his still-sticky popsicle stick in his bottom bureau drawer. It was his earliest defense of the integrity of the Self against Time. Not long after this initial deposit came candy wrappers and the top of a box of Fruit Loops. Goldsmith knew even then that though he could not really stop time, he could pluck feathers from its wings and bank them away in defiance of its passing. The days went down like sinking ships, but bright bits of cargo from each drowned hull would wind up stashed in his drawer."
Pearlman's fiction, though, is a great deal more than just clever opening lines. The stories are solidly plotted, almost to the point that the plot transcends the characters, yet the plots are engagingly unpredictable, and at points laugh-out-loud funny. Pearlman considers himself an "amateur" writer -- amateur in the sense that he doesn't earn his living from his published writing. That's in no small part because he refuses to fit his writing to a neat commercial category, and works too hard crafting his stories to become prolific. Said otherwise, he's an "amateur" in the same proud sense that Olympic athletes once were.
I have to tell you about two more stories, because they're my favorites. First, there's "The Vatican's Secret Cabinet," in which Giuseppe Pennini, a dealer in ancient Roman statuary, is assigned a "penance" of matching severed genitalia secretly stored in the Vatican museums with the unknown statues from which they were removed. It has so much to delight -- political intrigue, vanity, greed, and double-entendre -- all set in a subtle send-up of the traditional detective story, complete with a double-cross ending.
Then there's "Zeno Evil," in which the soldier -- a student of Zeno -- debates the philosophical impossibility of his wound. Again, it has some inspired opening sentences:
"Estiades the Athenian, son of the shield-maker Kephalos, lay on the battlefield bleeding from a wound that could not have been a wound -- inflicted by an arrow that could not have reached its target. The senses were not the most reliable source of Truth, but as he wandered in and out of those untrustworthy senses, it intermittently appeared to him that a Boiotian arrow had penetrated the linen part of his cuirass."
The story is also the most artful example in the book of a sort of "parallel consciousness" narrative technique where Pearlman blends the subjective thoughts of the character with the more objective reality about them. But the story is much more than that -- clever, thoughtful, historically fascinating, and erotic -- although for that you'll have to read it.
But you may prefer other stories in the collection -- the tale of Vera Unruh, literally fading as her circle of friends and lovers dwindle; or the erotic and sad story of Charles the circus midget and the Giant Lady Sword-Swallower. Or perhaps the historical grounding of Jung and Einstein debating social relativity under the jealous eye of Emma Jung is more to your taste. And if the magic of Reb Yoel Sternberg focusing human energies to repair the war-torn world around him, or the interior focus of Jeff Nimerson drawing childhood memories from a house as the wrecking ball swings don't charm you, then certainly "Spellchecked" and "Death in the Des(s)ert" will chill you.
This is a small-press book by an unconventional author breaking through the ghetto walls that entrap speculative fiction. Buy it. Tell your friends to buy it. Make it a best-selling classic. It's that good.
Brian Peters is Managing Editor for Strange Horizons.