Stuck in the Middle

by Steven G. Kellman
Amateur Barbarians
By Robert Cohen
(Scribner, 416 pages, $27)
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If this book is about “amateur barbarians,” middle-class Americans who recklessly abandon their moorings, then who are the professional barbarians? Wrestlers? Investment bankers? Writers? Cohen is adept enough at the writer’s craft to make the tired theme of male menopause not seem tiresome, mostly through a perky style. He is particularly fond of striking similes. After a reluctant conversation with Teddy, a mysterious stranger “zipped her face shut like someone putting away a cello.” The ghost of Teddy’s brother Philip “floated like a thought bubble over the comic strip of the days.” Elsewhere, we are told that “his stomach was rioting like a cellblock.” He will later savor a sample of the local delicacy: camel’s hump.

A preposterous episode in which Chinese aliens are apprehended in Carthage is an artistic misstep, and a reader can be as impatient as Teddy is with details of domestic life in small-town New England. The novel is most alive when it leaves American soil. About two-thirds of the way through Amateur Barbarians, a stranger complains about travelers’ tales she has had to put up with: “So many stories and confessions. Everyone shares their little heartbreaks.”

“Want to hear some of mine?” asks Teddy. “I’ve got enough for a whole book.”

She replies: “Forgive me, but I think no one wants to read such a book, if I may be honest.”

I have, with pleasure, read such a book, a seriocomedy of futile, intractable projects.

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