'I Am Death' by Gary Amdahl
I Am Death

Two Novellas

Gary Amdahl

Milkweed Editions: 170 pp., $15 paper

Gary Amdahl has observed office politics up close. He reads the Wall Street Journal and the Nation. He's a fan of C-SPAN. He's read Barthelme, Bulgakov, Melville and Swift -- even such business books as "Who Moved My Cheese?"

I'm guessing all this based on Amdahl's two novellas, collected under the title "I Am Death," in which he makes wicked fun of (and unearths surprising meaning in) the irreconcilable differences between commerce and art, politics and integrity, capitalism and the common good.

The title novella opens with Jack, a former Midwest correspondent for Life, now writing for the Illinois city of Schaumburg's Chamber of Commerce (all pieces are titled "Schaumburg!"). It's 1989 (and U.S. citizens are still baffled by the Iran-Contra scandal), and Jack is recruited by mobster Frank Fini to edit his memoir, "A Boy's First Book of Mobsters." Jack, who is not blind to the machinations behind the curtain of the gosh-and-golly Reagan years, is no innocent at the beginning of his association with Fini, but by the end he's been stripped clean of illusion.

Muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair wrote that it's "difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." That's the challenge Walter Rasmussen faces in the second novella, "Peasants." Walter works for a media conglomerate that publishes a "series of books, lightly written, heavily produced" about its product, geographic information systems. His boss, Kyle Boatman, doesn't suffer suits or hypocrisy even as he assaults his underlings with corporate doublespeak.

Boatman's publishing fiefdom is the profit-making envy of the company. Amdahl writes: "A Golden Age ensued and lasted perhaps six or nine months. Then their society deteriorated and became corrupt." The fall, precipitated by the arrival of Machiavellian character June E. Hoover, is both hilarious and uncomfortably close to reality.

Boatman's team members are caught in a net woven of mutually exclusive self-interests. They kick and twist, injuring one another and themselves as Amdahl pulls the net tighter, binding them to his plot, which, though unnecessarily complicated at times, is a sophisticated form of hyper-reality bordering on the absurd.

A writer who inhabits this literary realm risks sacrificing meaning in pursuit of cleverness, but Amdahl stays true to his antiheroes. Jack and Walter don't insult us by saying they're better for their struggles. Instead, they speak another truth, one that's much more difficult to hear: Death, and, at this point only death, will set us free. *

Ellen Slezak is the author of the story collection "Last Year's Jesus," and the novel "All These Girls."