Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
TOM BISSELL’S LATEST SHORT STORY COLLECTION, Creative Types and Other Stories is an absolute pleasure to read if you are a Tom Bissell fan. First time readers of Bissell, however, will be lost in a nerdy, introverted world where conflicted couples make self-flagellating and embarrassing attempts at sex, where all sex is generally intellectually over-analyzed and very, very bad, and the reader begins to wonder just a few stories in whether Bissell’s own sex life — he has tellingly and unnecessarily noted that ‘This is, emphatically, a work of fiction’ — is as horrible as all the pages of this book seem to suggest.
That Bissell has profound and embarrassing issues with sex is no secret to anyone who reads him. So those regular pleasures of Bissell’s self-revelatory writing are a main feature of this eclectic collection. One wonders in the thick of the pages if the author is inviting the reader to wonder about all this and simply laugh. Bissell, after all, is known to be a lusty participant in film and literary bloodsport, and so placing his own ego on the line to be ridiculed in return makes a kind of karmic sense. This book is where Tom Bissell gives a little back to all those people he has viciously knifed in public.
In these stories, a quickly married couple on a honeymoon to Rome — pregnant already — take emotionally divergent roads a la the best of Hemingway in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” in In Our Time. In the title story, Bissell dips his toe in AM Homes and Kristen Roupenian territory, showing an average upper middle class couple trying out a threesome with a hooker who has a “CLA$$Y LADY’ tramp stamp on her lower back, which turns both of them off in the heat of the moment. In the classic over-wrought, blind alley intellectualism that is a Bissell hallmark inherited from his mentor David Foster Wallace, it’s not clear that any fucking actually gets done, even though we get reams of pages about the call girl’s backstory. In that sense, AM Homes in her famous story, “Adults Alone,” about an upper class white couple trying out crack cocaine, and Kristen Roupenian in her #MeToo zeitgeist capturing masterpiece, “Cat Person,” that set the New Yorker world afire a few years ago, both of those two simply did it a bit more better.
Most of these stories are set or feel like they are set in a pre-Covid, pre-Trump world in which George W. Bush threatened to claim the title of worst president ever. That world has been utterly obliterated, and Bissell at times runs the risk of being noticed by cancel culture with unnecessarily ugly lines like “No Asian man forgets a white girl who smiles at him.”
Within these stories — and this reviewer suspects is the reason the collection is being published now — are glimmers and hints in these mid-2000’s settings of the horrors of the MAGA movement to come. These stories are rife with entitled and vicious white people who seem angry for no discernible reason at all, since life has given them plenty. Most notably in “Punishment,” a naturalized New Yorker from flyover country welcomes an old, conservative friend and his girlfriend to the city. The friend in 2020 would certainly be wearing a MAGA hat and we see through his eyes that a visit to elitist, sexually free New York is the same to him as visiting hell.
If you like to think, if you adore language and excellent, if weird and navel gazing writing, Bissell is your guy. He’s irreverent and funny, given a bit too much to lecturing, a real leading light of his generation of writers, and fairly unusual. Even his weakest stories are miles better than anything else around. Bissell is also well along the road to establishing a real legacy. His proximity to Wallace is certainly part of that, but his own writing aside from Wallace has always had the marks of an absolute master of the English language with a deep well of thoughts all his own.
Creative Types and Other Stories will please literary readers. But for all the MAGA prescience that Bissell offers here, Wallace offered all of that plus much more with his unforgettable essay, ‘Ticket To The Fair.’ It’s free online and well worth the read. It’s a harbinger of the hell we are all living in now, the first inklings of the culture war that we are fully waging between the rural whites and the coastal elites that is threatening to destroy democracy itself.
In that sense, these old Bissell stories are an anatomy of right now.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) lives in Florida and Nor Cal, is a novelist and investigative journalist.