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Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories
Gregory Frost
Golden Gryphon, 344 pages

Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories
Gregory Frost
Gregory Frost is a graduate of the writing program at the University of Iowa and of the intensive Clarion Writers Workshop at Michigan State University. He attened the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop at NC State University and, in the 90s along with Judith Berman and Richard Butner, took it over and moved it to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. It has since returned to the mountains of North Carolina.

Gregory Frost Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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It is a rare writer who is well served by a large retrospective collection of their short fiction, and, unfortunately, Gregory Frost is not one of them. He is a good writer, a skilled writer, a writer responsible for a couple of stories that are, in fact, better than average. A collection of 150 pages or so would have shone his strengths well and not obscured them amidst the generally competent but seldom remarkable work that fills out the rest of Attack of the Jazz Giants's 335 pages or so of fiction.

The book is not helped much by the foreword by Karen Joy Fowler or the afterword by John Kessel. Fowler does her best to fulfill what seems to have been an obligation to a friend, and she says nice things both about him and his writing, and she does it in a page and a half, so there's little to complain about other than the fact that one wonders why a good collection of stories really needs an introduction -- why can't the fiction stand on its own? Nonetheless, the publishers were apparently not satisfied merely with an foreword, and so there is the afterword, too, and in it Kessel compares Gregory Frost to Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Nathanael West -- some of the greatest writers in American history. The comparison is unfortunate and forced, because though Gregory Frost is not a bad writer, he is not one of the greatest in American history, alas. But he is apparently a very nice person, and so his friends are willing to gush for him, which is noble, but also a bit embarrassing.

The majority of the stories here suffer from a kind of common mediocrity: they have interesting premises that are explored in careful, modulated prose just up to the point where the average intelligent reader would probably follow them, and then they stop, usually in a neat and facile ending. If you hear the premise of the story, you can probably figure out for yourself where it is going to go most of the time, and if you are satisfied going where you expect to go, then you will find the book overall enjoyable and satisfying.

The premises are often literate and clever. "The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray" gives us a man who can eat and eat and eat, all of his extra weight being taken on by the women who date him; "Collecting Dust" presents a family where the overworked parents become literalized metaphors by shedding bits of themselves as dust until they disappear; "In the Sunken Museum" reimagines Edgar Allan Poe's last days in the hands of a truly fanatical reader; "Touring Jesusworld" mixes Christ, amusement parks, and Elvis; the title story gives us an alien invasion by giant instruments; and "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes" is a zany trickster tale, far too long, but occasionally amusing. Most of the stories that work best are the shortest ones, because the longer stories roam and ramble with little reward, although occasionally Frost's satire is not sharp enough, and so a short story like "The Bus," where a homeless man literally becomes fuel for decadent wealth, ends up being clunkingly obvious.

Certainly the most accomplished story in the collection is "Madonna of the Maquiladora," a tale of corporate greed, investigative journalism, and the use and abuse of miracles. All of Frost's strengths are on display in it -- the careful prose, the attention to injustice, the finely balanced traditional story structure -- with less of a tendency to let the premise do most of the work of entertainment.

Short story collections suffer when they are padded with ancillary materials (forewords, afterwords, story notes) and not-entirely-effective tales, because the energy of the better material gets sapped away and the reader's attention lags. What matters is the fiction, and a collection should be an opportunity for a writer to present, in more permanent form than a magazine offers, his or her best work, not just everything they happen to have gotten published, plus some cheerful hyperbole from pals.

Copyright © 2006 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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