I had a conversation this afternoon about having a thick skin, and it reminded me of the one really terrible review I got for The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing. It’s not really so bad in retrospect, but at the time it felt awful, especially because it came from Kirkus Reviews, which along with Publishers Weekly, was one of the two trades that bookstores used to evaluate which new titles to order. Needless to say, I didn’t think this would help, but my editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish, encouraged me to see it as a badge of honor.
This strange collection of 11 stories, some of which have appeared in The Quarterly, tries hard to shock, disturb, and impress with its creepy logic and evil posturings–all meant to be the dark dreams of a latter-day Zelig, who takes on the identities of all sorts of demented characters: a gangster, a foot fetishist, a hit-man, a rapist, and a failed baseball player. Michael Missing’s many lives are all narrated by the same admittedly “”mean and cynical”” voice, an angry, foulmouthed liar who also happens to be perpetually horny. As a Queens boy in “”In the Boroughwides,”” his science-fair project for saving the starving people of India is a huge local success but never answers the larger question: “”Why is the universe so stingy and short?”” We learn here the secret to Missing’s fantasies–his desire “”to be dangerous.”” “”to hit people, To rob from the rich. Get killed.”” No modern Robin Hood, in “”Caper”” he works for shady Uncle Feldstein running numbers, boosting furs, and dealing drugs. A number of stories record his checkered romantic history: His unrequited lust for his sister (“”I hated my sister because she never fucked me””) leads to many strange episodes, such as toe-sucking his eighth-grade teacher (“”The Last Donna””). When his nubile French cousin visits in “”Summer Romance,”” she prefers the lesbian hitchhiker they pick up on their way to San Francisco, where the beautiful cousin ODs. Married, 19, with one child (in “”A Person with a Gun Is Dangerous to Those Around Him””), he dreams of killing his family. “”The Backswing of the Slugger”” bemoans his career in the lowest of the minor leagues, where his best swings are at his girlfriend. He fantasizes life as “”a poor young wetback”” in “”Going Home to Mother,”” and as an 18th-century pirate in “”The Memoirs of Younge Michael Missinge.”” The longest piece, “”The Profound Convictions of Michael Famous,”” brings together all his offensiveness into one surreal narrative, full of whores, ballplaying, murder, a bid for the Presidency, and Jewish guilt. Anger and sadness lead to delusions of malevolence for someone who seems to be in fact a nebbish from Jackson Heights–a weird and unconvincing debut.