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Tucson Weekly Coen Canon

Cashing In On Fame Has Its Rewards, And Ethan Coen's Reflections On Childhood Are Among Them.

By Stephan Faris

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

Gates of Eden, by Ethan Coen (William Morrow & Co.). Cloth, $24.

AH, FAME. FROM the author of Fargo and Raising Arizona comes Gates of Eden. Ethan Coen has parlayed his success as a filmmaker into the publication of a collection of short stories. And while the book is not without its merits, it's hard to conceive of any less-famous, first-time author receiving timely publications in such prestigious magazines as The New Yorker and Playboy.

The stories tend to the frivolous, more Hudsucker Proxy than Blood Simple. With a couple notable exceptions, they star a caricatured criminal or private investigator and run the gamut from maudlin melodrama to burlesque parody. (The title story tells of an agent of the California Weights and Measures and his twisted fall at the hands of a fruit-stand mob.) Although light on plot, each story provides enough humorous twists to keep things rolling.

Actually, Coen puts his script-writing experience to good use. Of the book's 14 selections, six are either radio plays or monologues. And a Coen brothers fan will recognize the stylized over-the-top dialogue in the other eight pieces. When the narrator of "It Is An Ancient Mariner" describes a woman who murdered her husband, you can pick up the trademark Coen humor as the minutiae tangle up, obscuring the seriousness at hand.

You should've seen her in the little sundress she was in when she stabbed Ronnie. Very sweet. Blond girl. Freckles on her chest. And the tops of her arms there. Oh, you can see her in the little girls. Two blond little moptops. And how she doted on them. Positively doted. Man, you have not seen doting till you've seen Alice with her kids. Well, Ronnie too, far as that goes. You could not fault him there.

Some will use Gates of Eden to parse the Coen Brothers' movies, separating Ethan's contributions from his brother's. They will find that Ethan is the wacky one, the one responsible for the extreme, one-note characters: John Goodman and John Turturro in The Big Lebowski, for example. His tendency is to blow things so out of proportion that something uniquely beautiful, or at least entertaining, emerges; the surreal mania of Barton Fink is this method's acme.

Sometimes bits from the movies sneak in: In Miller's Crossing, there's a scene where a huge tough is interrogating fellow gangster, Tom Reagan. Taking advantage of a distraction, Tom splinters a chair across his tormentor, who immediately starts bawling, "Why'd you have to do that for, Tom?" The same thug could be the redhead ineptly extorting Esperanza's Pizzeria in "Cosa Minapolidan":

"Joe de Louie don't like waiting," he said. "You've kept Joe de Louie waiting since Wednesday. He ain't used to it and he, ya know...he don't plan to start getting used to it...."

The redheaded man fell silent, still staring at Esperanza. The dark man leaned up to him and said quietly.

"Call him a name."

"--Fuckface," said the redheaded man, and blushed.

But Coen is at his best writing about children, especially the pre-adolescent. We've seen the funny-gangster-thing done before, and probably better, in the movies. This is the first time Coen has depicted children, and he does it spectacularly. "The Old Country" may contain one of the funniest printed descriptions of a 10-year-old, a "Hammer of God" wildly disrupting his Hebrew School:

...he would canter lopsidedly down the hall behind another classmate, baying like a jackass, eyes rolled back in his head as his right hand made a sweeping pantomime of jerking off. Or he would stage what in other contexts would look like coups of performance art. One day in the lavatory he peed on the radiator while loudly singing "O, Canada"; the stench of burning urine wafted through the school for the rest of the day.

In the standout selection "The Boys," a father and his two young sons take a camping trip where little goes wrong, but nothing goes right. Coen paints a typical family trip tormented by repeated trips to the bathroom, a 4-year-old who eats only omelets topped with jelly, a waitress that's never heard of an "almlet," and a bigger brother who wants to drive an hour and a half out of the way to see a Native American pageant. ("Dad, I would understand if there was a reason.")

Anyone who's ever spent an hour alone with a young kid will sprout knowing smiles as they turn these pages, savoring Coen's prose on the subject.

These gems notwithstanding, it is clearly Coen's previous success as a filmmaker that's enable this book to see the light of a bookstore display--a fact Coen winkingly acknowledges in his fictitious "About the Author," which ends:

Coen is an accomplished nudist and is the author of a study of Scott's Kenilworth which was universally ignored, as well as of three volumes of poetry or, if any publisher should prefer, one big one.


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