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Two Playboy Fiction Reviews: Stories from Walter Kirn and Jon Raymond

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Walter Kirn
From the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Playboy...

I can dimly remember having heard of Walter Kirn somewhere in my literary dabbles. Upon a quick closer look, he's the author behind the films Up in the Air (2009) and Thumbsucker (2005). I haven't seen either film, but I know of their existence, and I therefore realize this guy must be, in the words of Ron Burgundy "kind of a big deal." He's also married to Maggie McGuane, daughter of one of my favorite writers, Thomas McGuane. Not that that scores him any points in my heart.

His story in this month's Playboy, called "Finishing," is about a teenager who works at an ice cream shop and is having his job gradually replaced by a dexterous, ice-cream serving robot named "Lenny." One of the few things that keeps Tyson Millner from being completely replaced by Lenny the robot is that Lenny cannot seem to put the cherry on top of the ice cream sundaes properly. This becomes a hilarious tongue-in-cheek metaphor when Tyson starts hooking up with his boss, a much older woman named Carol.

This is a rare and unique story, in my opinion. What makes it rare and unique is it's "completeness," the way Tyson faces conflict and changes in response to it in a realistic way, and the way the ending ties the whole theme of the story together without seeming like it's been forced. Furthermore, Kirn manages to take a somewhat unlikely circumstance and put a real, 3-D character into it, and makes him actually do something interesting: seduce his boss so that she maybe finds a reason to keep him on instead of the robot. Kirn's glimpse into the mind of an 18 year old boy also seems deft and thoughtful, as he periodically has Tyson think back to his formative time at an Outward Bound type program called Youth Horizons. Makes me want to read more of Kirn's stuff.

Freebird: A Novel by [Raymond, Jon]Jon Raymond's story, "Visiting Violence," is actually an excerpt from his upcoming novel Freebird, which should be out by now, actually. This story is about a Navy SEAL who returns back to civilian life in the U.S. after 24 years of combat and encounters what he calls the "potato people" -- soft, flabby Americans unused to hardship and with no awareness of the horrors that men must face in order to keep them safe and comfortable.

Very interesting and engaging perspective from the main character and I enjoyed looking at cushy American life through his combat-weathered lens. I can't help but question whether it's worth reading a whole novel's worth of this, however; the synopsis on Amazon.com makes this sound like a sprawling novel of contemporary family dysfunction, somewhat in the vein of Phillip Roth's American Pastoral or Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. I think this is worth a closer look, if not at least a bookstore aisle flip-through.

(**Note: I just learned Jon Raymond has a novel called Night Moves, presumably named after the Bob Seger song. This guy officially gets the full endorsement of TGCB.)

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