Woody Allen's latest short fiction – Washington Examiner

One of the most regrettable things about cancel culture is the way it deprives us lowly lovers of art for art’s sake of those things that we have come to expect.
By all rights, we should be able to go to the local art house theater to see the latest film by Roman Polanski, swing by the neighborhood library to check out any book of our choosing from the canon of Dr. Seuss, and pick up the latest copy of the New Yorker to find, from time to time, a new short story by Woody Allen.
In the absence of such reliable pleasures, life becomes a little blander, and in the case of Allen, the loss is especially palpable: Although the 86-year-old filmmaker continues to toil behind the camera, albeit on films that receive increasingly haphazard releases, including his recent comedy Rifkin’s Festival, he has, in recent years, been altogether AWOL from the New Yorker, a magazine to which he began contributing in 1966. No piece bearing Allen’s byline has appeared in the fabled magazine since 2013.
While we should feel aggrieved that one of the last remaining reasons to read the New Yorker continues to be denied to us — it will take more than the verdict in the Johnny Depp defamation trial to introduce a measure of sense to the #MeToo movement and restore Allen to the magazine’s pages — we now have, at least, a new book gathering Allen’s recent short fiction, including what is presumably his final batch of contributions to the New Yorker.
Zero Gravity, which includes eight New Yorker stories, one of which was revised for its inclusion here, and 11 other stories, comes from Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which also unshackled Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, after it was jettisoned by its original mainstream publisher. The new collection reminds us that the short fiction form remains the primary vessel for the manic, antic, nonsensical side of Allen’s personality. As a filmmaker, Allen long ago abandoned the jokey, tossed-off spirit of early triumphs such as Take the Money and Run and Bananas — “the early funny ones,” as a character calls them in Stardust Memories. But as a writer of prose, he remains defiantly daft — unafraid of punch lines, seduced by silliness, bewitched by verbal gymnastics. To put it another way, if Ingmar Bergman, Eugene O’Neill, and Anton Chekhov became Allen’s cinematic fathers, S. J. Perelman remains his literary father.
The lineage is instantly obvious in Zero Gravity. Allen borrows many of Perelman’s trademarks and techniques, including a tendency to start a story in one place, such as with the narrator recalling a news item, and ending up somewhere else entirely. Allen also shares with Perelman a propensity for non sequiturs (“I think you’re really onto something big here,” says a man listening to a Hollywood producer’s preposterous pitch in one story here, “but if you’ll excuse me now I’m due at a barn-raising with some Amish friends”) and a major weakness for funny names, including, among the stories gathered here, Milo Vorpich and Jean-Claude Toupé. A health-food store is called the Hardened Artery, and an Oscar-winning film is titled Naked Coed Zombies from Pluto.
Notwithstanding such made-up flimflammery, Allen studs his stories with sophisticated cultural references, but these allusions are trotted out to send up, not to show off. In “When Your Hood Ornament Is Nietzsche,” Allen imaginatively develops a New York Times article about self-driving, decision-making cars into a first-person account of one particularly erudite automobile capable of name-dropping Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud, and others. “The truth is you never know when you have to rely on Aristotle or Confucius when faced with choosing to hit a lamppost or running over a man from Zabar’s with fresh bagels,” Allen writes in the voice of the vehicle, which values its owner, a cultured fellow called Ivor Sweetroll, over “four men in lederhosen” who cross its path while departing a Steuben Day Parade. “While I struggled to minimize carnage, I hit the one named Emil and made what billiard players call a carom shot using his head, a nun, and the side of a building.” Later, the car admits to feelings of “dizzying euphoria” when it is purloined by fleeing bank robbers.
Perhaps owing to his day job as a dramatist, Allen can credibly incarnate not just a car but a variety of personages and creatures, including a woman who is seduced by notoriously caddish movie star Bolt Upright (“I was careful to dress conservatively, in an unprovocative micro-skirt, black mesh hose, and a tight but tasteful see-through blouse”) in “Will The Real Avatar Please Stand Up” and several victims of Bernie Madoff who, after death, return as lobsters and come dangerously close to being consumed by the disgraced financier (“To swindle me out of my life’s savings and then to nosh me in butter sauce! What kind of universe is this?”) in “Tails of Manhattan.”
These stories are full of the sort of logical-when-you-think-about-it balderdash indicative of the man who, in his classic Russian literature-derived comedy Love and Death, referenced an old man’s “small piece of land” and then revealed it to be not an estate but two handfuls of sod. In “Sorry, No Pets Allowed,” an oversexed pop superstar recalls an encounter with one Porfirio Moshpit aboard his private plane. “He put the plane on automatic pilot and had sex with me at forty thousand feet,” the narrator says, with a payoff that has a certain linguistic inevitability: “Then he took over the controls, and I had sex with the automatic pilot.”
Other stories reside more plausibly within the real world, including an account of the anxiety-inducing experience of selling and buying real estate in contemporary New York. “Carping whiners paraded through our home, appraising each floorboard and molding before vanishing forever into various versions of the naked city’s eight million stories,” Allen writes in “Park Avenue, High Floor, Must Sell — Or Jump.”
Best of all is a long, obviously autobiographical story called “Growing Up in Manhattan,” in which Allen shows himself to remain endearingly susceptible to the Big Apple of his boyhood dreams. In this bravura story, Flatbush-born wannabe playwright Jerry Sachs imagines a future for himself in which he inhabits the glittering world of stylish Manhattanites. (“The fact that he was in love with Katharine Hepburn from The Philadelphia Story and Tracy lived in Philly and not Manhattan did not faze him.”) When Jerry’s far-too-ordinary wife Gladys, whose unpardonable sins include dragging her husband to folk concerts and questioning the city as a place to bring up children, proves inadequate to our hero’s conception of himself, he allows himself to be entranced by a dream vision on a Central Park bench, a comely young lady named Lulu Brooks. “I see you all upscale and beautiful and trading snappy patter over cocktails,” Jerry tells her. There’s more to Lulu than her lovingly enumerated attributes, but that doesn’t diminish Allen’s sincere reverie for a certain cosmopolitan vision of adulthood that he can still conjure in his ninth decade. “It gave him a feeling of melancholy, Manhattan melancholy with its Tin Pan Alley score sneaking in and making him feel sad yet pleasant,” Allen writes, speaking for his hero, and himself, while soaking in a New York sunset.
Pleasantness, in fact, is what one experiences when devouring these innocuous tales that are often satirical, seldom savage, frequently fanciful, and always witty and smart. This is not prose to be canceled but to be celebrated.
Peter Tonguette is a contributing writer to the Washington Examiner magazine.


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