The zany and macabre stories in Owen Egerton's "How Best to Avoid Dying" make excellent bathtub reading — just be sure to unplug the hair dryer, lest you serve as a morbid punch line. The stories deal as much with spiritual death as with physical death, but there's plenty of both to go around. Egerton has previously published two novels, "The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God" and "Everybody Says That at the End of the World," boisterous satires that ribbed organized religion while acknowledging our need for something more. In his first published story collection, Egerton keeps the chuckles, but applies a laser focus to our search for the sacred, with results that are both darker and more divine.
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Egerton, who has written frequently about his disillusionment with Christianity, remains enthralled by the promise and prohibition of religion — and revels in its enduring weirdness. He has a gift for lampooning youth-pastor shtick ("Jesus is our waterslide," one character solemnly announces) and an abiding awe for those saints, martyrs and lunatics who renounce the normal to attain the extraordinary — or die trying. In "Challenging, Repulsive, and Awesome," the sole clerk at a 24-hour Stop & Shop, who never leaves his post and rests his brain one hemisphere at a time, monologues on mortification: "Your soul is as soft and pasty as my skin. But my soul is as sharp and cool as the silver caps on your rotting teeth." It's an irresistible simile for a purveyor of candy bars and soda pop; still, Egerton's admiration is real.
The bitterest and best of the stories, "Lazarus, Dying," follows the adventures of a resurrected but slightly rotten Lazarus stuck playing eternal sidekick to the Apostle John. Both have been granted immortality by Jesus until his return, but Lazarus, dead a few days too long ("I think I'll keep it to three," Jesus says, patting him on the back), finds himself cursed with all the stink of the grave and none of the relaxation. Longing for death as he narrates the story from the 21st century, Lazarus picks the scab of his lost faith in a world seemingly forgotten by God: "It's raining in New York. I stand by the window and listen, gently pulling teeth from my mouth." In stories like this one and "Tonight at Noon," in which a man stands vigil over his girlfriend's decaying body, a ghoulish fascination with the body's darker secrets yields an unexpected pathos.
Other stories are just gross, like "The Fecalist," whose satire proves especially, er, pungent. In this tongue-in-cheek revision of Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," a mid-list novelist finds overnight success in a startling new medium that one is tempted to call a fitting metaphor for the chronic logorrhea of the Twitter age. It's a scathing send-up of celebrity culture and the self-voiding narcissism of the artist in which eschatology and scatology form a natural pair—with plenty of poop jokes.
If Egerton's profane bravado occasionally borders on the juvenile — and it should be noted that not one but two stories revolve entirely around the male member — at least he's never glib. Even the story called "Pierced," which requires a particularly strong stomach and a knowledge of the mechanics of a Prince Albert, remains devoted to its pathetically human problems. A handful of stories about masculine frustration, including "St. Gobbler's Day" and the hilariously named "Lord Baxtor Ballsington," verge into territory haunted by the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, but are redeemed by Egerton's fundamental generosity toward even his most gruesome characters — and, by extension, to his readers. The prose puts itself out there, as vulnerable and ridiculous as the title appendage of "Lord Baxtor Ballsington."
One of the most interesting examples of this vulnerability is "Licorice: A Story for John Erler," which contains extensive footnotes addressed directly to an Austin, Texas, comedian and radio personality with whom Egerton has performed a comedy show for years. In the main story, a rock musician records an achingly high-concept album in the "Pet Sounds" tradition, inspired by his joint attraction to a woman and her comatose fiancé. His sublimated love for the couple pours into the album in the form of bizarre, complex sounds and even more complicated silences, mapping the unspoken love between straight men and the romantic love between straight men and women as an intertwining set of paths. Meanwhile, in the meta-story, the reader "overhears" the increasingly tender footnotes addressed to Erler, echoing the main story's love triangle in a lovely contrapuntal conceit.
In the road trip story "Of All Places," the narrator, crossing the border into the scrubbed, hot landscape of West Texas after many trials and tribulations, apostrophizes (rather than prays to) God: "You are a mute trickster, you are promise, you are the hawk and lizard and fly and bus, you are Pete and a smoking woman and pollen, you are hills and sand and a girl in a towel. You have no name and you have all names. Today I'll call you Texas." Egerton is hardly the first to suggest that this type of attention to the raw minutiae of beauty is the closest we get to grace. But he's the funniest to do so in a long time.
Amy Gentry is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She has a doctorate in English and writes a weekly style column called The Good Eye.
"How Best to Avoid Dying"
By Owen Egerton, Soft Skull, 200 pages, $15.95