In Delhi or America, the Men in These Stories Behave Badly

Adrian Tomine in The New York Times:

AkhilThe provocatively upbeat title of Akhil Sharma’s first collection of short stories, “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” raises some questions. Is it an earnest declaration of tone and content? Is it ironic? The answer, like the book itself, is complicated, debatable and subjective. When the title appears within the text, it’s a fragment of the thoughts of Gautama, an Indian immigrant in New York, who has called a prostitute to his apartment. The encounter is a personal triumph for the frustrated, conflicted young man, both a fulfillment of a long-held wish and a rebellion against cultural expectations. At his request, the prostitute has undressed and is jumping up and down as Gautama gleefully grasps her breasts. It’s an unexpected scene, simultaneously unsettling and lighthearted: “His hands on her breasts, Gautama became happier and happier.” A life of adventure and delight, indeed, for one character. But for the other? Maybe not so much. This slippery tone — at once amused and critical, resigned and outraged — infuses each of these eight haunting, revelatory stories. As in so much of contemporary American fiction, the attention here is on the conflicts and consolations between couples and family members in a naturalistic present day. Throughout, Sharma adheres unwaveringly to Raymond Carver’s dictum of “no tricks,” telling his stories with bracingly direct, unassuming language. The dialogue is equally spare but true. But where some writers choose to obfuscate or minimize their ethnic background, Sharma is boldly forthright and probing. Focusing exclusively on Indian characters, both in Delhi and in the New York metropolitan area, he brings a keen cultural awareness to each of these stories. In some instances, this ethnologic insight is played for laughs — as in the story “Cosmopolitan,” in which an Indian man in New Jersey studies magazines like Mademoiselle as research in his quest to date American women. Perusing articles on topics like “what makes a woman a good lover,” the man is “reminded how easily one can learn anything in America.” In the same story, the protagonist, attending a party, “improvised on jokes he had read in ‘1,001 Polish Jokes.’ The Poles became Sikhs, but the rest remained the same.” In the story “Surrounded by Sleep,” a teenager begins to converse with God, whom he envisions as Clark Kent. “Originally,” the narrator explains, “God had appeared to Ajay as Krishna, but Ajay had felt foolish discussing brain damage with a blue God who held a flute and wore a dhoti.”

…In the final lines of the story (and the book), Sharma arrives at a moment that all the previous stories have been leading toward: “We were on Route 27 when my mother reached over my shoulder and slapped me, hard. Her hand hit my face and ear. Her breath was loud. She reached over and hit me again. I thought, Good, I should be hit.” It’s a small, beautifully underplayed moment, and perhaps a first step for a character who might one day write a book as perceptive, humane and pointed as this.

More here. (Note" Congratulations to dear friend Akhil!)