“Funeral Platter” by Greg Ames, Arcade, 244 pages, $24.99
Titling is an art all by itself--especially in postmodern fiction where a title’s vector can be straight ahead or at a sharp ironic turn from the story. A book of short stories called “Funeral Platter” goes only part way into telling you just how unbuttoned Greg Ames’ literary sensibility can be. You need to get into a few of the titles themselves of the 20 stories that fill his first volume of them: “Playing Ping Pong With Pontius Pilate,” for instance, or “Is The Vagina Necessary?” The latter begins thusly: “My work on the vagina is well-known, both nationally and internationally. I have been an expert in this field for over 17 years. At a recent academic conference in Houston, I presented my peer-reviewed article ‘Vaginas After Adorno: The Legacy of Pseudo Individualism in a Gendered World."
Does all that seem like the sort of antic, japing parody at the expense of academe and intellectual fashion that one might have found in the work of the late great Donald Barthelme? When I interviewed Greg Ames before his realistic novel “Buffalo Lockjaw” came out and proved to be the definitive novel about growing up on the Elmwood Ave. strip in Buffalo, he told me that a formative literary experience in his life was reading Barthelme’s story “Some of Us Have Been Threatening My Friend Colby.”
You’ll also find in “Funeral Platter,” a story about being Franz Kafka’s wing-man at a bar for women. And this Beckettesque beginning to a post-Kafkan tale with the stately title “Retirement Home:” “Ryder carries a slop bucket of grub out to his parents. He unlatches the clanking gate of their chain-link cage as sets bucket down in the dirt.”
Don’t be waylaid by apparent derivation and inspiration. These stories can be very dark but also very funny. And both, and much more besides, including fresh. Family tales can be harrowing when Ames is in charge. He teaches writing At Colgate University and has published stories in "McSweeney’s," Dave Eggers’ “Best American Nonrequired Reading," "North American Review" and "Southern Review." In an era full of wildly smart and varied Buffalo-bred literary talent from all over the stylistic map, Ames is one of the wildest, most unexpected and best.