Men and Cartoons

Men and Cartoons

by Jonathan Lethem

Paperback(Reprint - 11 stories, expanded edition)

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A boozy ex-military captain trapped in a mysterious vessel searches for his runaway son, an aging superhero settles into academia, and a professional "dystopianist" receives a visit from a suicidal sheep. Men and Cartoons contains eleven fantastical, amusing, and moving stories written in a dizzying array of styles that shows the remarkable range and power of Lethem's vision. Sometimes firmly grounded in reality, and other times spinning off into utterly original imaginary worlds, this book brings together marvelous characters with incisive social commentary and thought provoking allegories. 

      A visionary and creative collection that only Jonathan Lethem could have produced, the Vintage edition features two stories not published in the hardcover edition, "The Shape We're In" and "Interview with the Crab. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076802
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/08/2005
Series: Vintage Contemporaries
Edition description: Reprint - 11 stories, expanded edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,037,592
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Award. He is the author of two short story collections and the editor of The Vintage Book of Amnesia. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Granta and Harper’s. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.


New York, New York

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


Left Bennington College after two years

Read an Excerpt

The Vision

I first met the kid known as the Vision at second base, during a kickball game in the P.S. 29 gymnasium, fifth grade. That's what passed for physical education in 1974: a giant rubbery ball, faded red and pebbled like a bath mat, more bowled than pitched in the direction of home plate. A better kick got the ball aloft, and a fly was nearly uncatchable--after the outfielder stepped aside, as he or she invariably did, nearly anything in the air was a home run. Everyone fell down, there'd be a kid on his ass at each base as you went past. Alternately, a mistimed kick scudded back idiotically to the pitcher, and you were thrown out at first.

The Vision booted a double. His real name was Adam Cressner, but he believed himself or anyway claimed to be the Vision: the brooding, super powered android from Marvel Comics' Avengers. The comic-book Vision had the power to vary the density of his body, becoming a ghost if he wished to float through walls or doors, becoming diamond hard if he wished to stop bullets like Superman. Adam Cressner couldn't do any of this. This day he wasn't even wearing his cape or costume, but under black curls his broad face was smeared unevenly with red food dye, as it always was. I was fascinated. The Vision had come to be taken for granted at Public School 29, but I'd never seen him up close.

"Nice kick," I ventured, to Adam Cressner's back. The Vision had assumed a stance of readiness, one foot on the painted base, hands dangling between his knees Lou Brock-style. "Ultron-5 constructed me well," replied the Vision in the mournful monotone of a synthetic humanoid. Before I could speak again the ball was in the air, and Adam Cressner had scooted home to score, not pausing as he rounded third.

Now the Vision was a grown man in a sweatshirt moving an open Martini & Rossi carton-load of compact discs into the basement entrance of the next-door brownstone. I spotted Captain Beefheart, Sonny Sharrock, Eugene Chadbourne. I'd been returning from the corner bodega with a quart of milk when I recognized him instantly, even without his red face and green hood, or the yellow cape he'd worn in winter months. "Adam Cressner?" I asked. I made it a question to be polite: it was Adam Cressner.

"Do I know you?" Cressner's hair was still curly and loose, his eyes still wild blue.

"Not really. We went to school together."


"P.S. 29, fifth grade." I pointed thumbwise in the direction of Henry Street. I didn't want to say: You were the Vision, man! But I supposed in a way I'd just said it. "Joel Porush."

"Possibly I remember you." He said this with a weird premeditated hardness, as if not remembering but possibly remembering was a firm policy.

"Migrated back to the old neighborhood?"

Cressner placed the box at the slate lip of the basement stairwell and stepped around his gate to take my hand. "By the time we had a down payment we could barely afford this part of the city," he said. "But Roberta doesn't care that I grew up around here. She became entranced with the neighborhood reports in the City section."



"Ah." This left me with nothing to say except, "I should have you guys over for drinks."

The Vision lifted one Nimoy-esque eyebrow.

"When you get in and catch your breath, of course." You and the paramour.

I met Roberta at the border of our two backyards, the next Sunday. The rear gardens through the middle of the block were divided by rows of potted plants but no fence, allowing easy passage of cats and conversation. These communal yards were a legacy from the seventies that most new owners hadn't chosen to reverse. I had a basement renter's usual garden privileges, and was watering the plants which formed the border when Roberta Jar appeared at her back door. She introduced herself, and explained that she and Cressner had bought the house.

"Yes, I met Adam a few days ago," I said. "I know him, actually. From around here."


I'd supposed he'd told of our encounter in front, mentioned being recognized by a schoolmate. Now I had to wonder whether to explain Cressner's childhood fame. "We were at grade school together, on Henry Street. Long before this was a fashionable address. Surely he's walked you past his alma mater."

"Adam doesn't reminisce," said Roberta Jar coolly and, I thought, strangely. The assertion which could have been fond or defiant had managed to be neither. I thought of how Adam had possibly remembered, the week before.

"Funny, I do nothing else," I said. I hoped it was a charming line. Roberta Jar didn't smile, but her eyes flashed a little encouragement.

"Does it pay well?" she asked.

"Only when something gets optioned for the movies."

"How often is that?"

"It's like the lottery," I said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing. But that one time and you're golden."

I'd been blunted from the fact of my instinctive attraction to Roberta Jar, in those first moments, by her towering height. Roberta was six two, or three, I calculated, and with none of that hunched manner with which women apologize for great height or sizable breasts. So I'd been awed before being struck. By this time, though, I was struck too. Paramour-pyramid-pylon, I fooled with in my head.

I mentioned again having the two of them over for a drink. My evenings were very free since parting from Gia Maucelli, and I was stuck on what I'd blurted to Adam Cressner and had visualized ever since--a grown-up encounter, involving wine and sophisticated talk. No longer a couple, I still socialized like one in my imagination. Cressner and his tall woman would visit my apartment for drinks. They'd see the couple I'd been by Gia's phantom-limb absence, and ratify the couple I'd likely be again by the fact of themselves. In other words, perhaps Roberta Jar had a friend she could set me up with.

"Maybe," she said, utterly disinterested. "Or you could come along tonight. We're having a few people in."

"A housewarming party?"

"Actually, we're playing a game. You'd like it."

"Truth-or-dare, spin-the-bottle sort of thing?"

"More interesting than that. It's called Mafia. You should come--I think we still need a fifteenth."

For bridge or a dinner party you might need a fourth or a sixth--Roberta Jar and Adam Cressner needed a fifteenth. That was how close to essential I'd been encouraged to feel myself to be.

"How do you play Mafia?"

"It's hard to explain, but not to play."

I turned up with wine, still imposing my paradigm, but it was a beer thing I'd turned up at. Adam Cressner ushered me into the parlor, which was restored--new white marble fireplace and mantel, freshly remodeled plaster-rosette ceiling, blond polished floor--but unfurnished, and full instead of gray metal folding chairs like those you'd find in a church basement. The chairs were packed with Adam and Roberta's friends, all drinking from bottles and laughing noisily, too caught up to bother with introductions--when I counted I found myself precisely fifteenth. Roberta Jar was part of the circle, tall in her chair. I wondered if she stood taller than Adam--this was the first time I'd seen them together.

Adam had just been explaining the game, and he started again for me. I was one of four or five in the group who'd never played. Others threw in comments and suggestions as Adam explained the rules. "I'll be the narrator," Adam told us. "That means I'm not playing the game, but leading you through it."

"We want you to play, Adam," someone shouted. "Someone else can narrate. We've played, we know how."

"No, you need a strong narrator," said Adam. "You're an unruly bunch." I imagined I heard in his tone a hint of the Vision's selfless patronage of humanity.

According to the rules of Mafia, the group of fourteen comprised a "village"--except that three of us were "mafia" instead: false villagers working to bring the village down. These identities were assigned by dealt cards, black for village, red for mafia. The game then unfolded in cycles of "night" and "day." Night was when we closed our eyes and lowered our heads--"The village is asleep," Adam explained--with the exception of the three mafiosi. They instead kept their eyes open, and by an exchange of glances silently conspired to select a villager to kill. The victim would be informed of his or her death by the narrator, when night was over, and then make an orderly exit from the game.

Day, by contrast, was chaos, a period of free talk and paranoia among the sincere and baffled villagers--who, of course, included three dissembling mafiosi. Each day closed with the village agreeing by democratic vote on a suspect to banish. This McCarthyesque ritual lynching brought about night, and another attack from the mafia. And so on. The mafia won if they winnowed the village down to two or three, a number they could dominate in any voting, before the village purged all mafiosi from its ranks. It seemed to me like relentless jargonish nonsense, but I worked on a beer (telling Roberta the wine was "for the cellar"), checked out the women, and allowed myself to be swept into the group's flow. We began our first day in the village, peppered by Adam-the-narrator's portentous reminders, such as "Dead, keep your silence." I'd drawn a black card: villager.

Our village was young and boisterous, full of hot, beer-bright faces whose attachments I couldn't judge. It was also splendidly bloodthirsty. "It pretty much doesn't matter who we vote out on the first day," some veteran player announced. "We don't have any information yet." I wondered how we were meant to gather information at any point in the agitated cross talk, but never mind. A regular named Barth was quickly exiled, on grounds of past performance--he'd proven such a generally deceptive player that he couldn't be trusted now. Roberta, who with her stature and chesty volume was strongly dominant in the village, led this charge. Barth succumbed to our lynch mob under groaning protest. "Night" fell, we "slept," and when day came again Adam announced that a woman named Kelly had been taken out by the mafia.

Kelly's murder drew shouts and giggles of surprise. Why had they picked her? Perhaps this was the information that would lead us to an informed lynching, instead of Barth's whimsical sacrifice. The village again plunged into an uproar of accusations and deflection. I turned to the woman beside me, a sylphlike girl with dyed-black shortish hair, who hadn't spoken. "Are you in the mafia?" I asked her, not quite whispering.

She blinked at me. "I'm a villager."

"Me too." I told her my name, and she told me hers--Doe. Our exchange was easily covered by the shouts of the village leadership, mainly Roberta Jar and a couple of strident men, as they led our next purge.

"First time?" Doe asked.


"That doesn't mean you aren't lying to me."

"No, it doesn't," I said. "But I'm not. Whom do you suspect?"

"I'm hopeless at this." Unashamed, she met my eye. I felt a pang. Doe was everything Roberta Jar was not: diminutive, vulnerable, and, I began to hope, single.

"We'll work together," I suggested. "Be watchful."

Mafia was a kind of fun, I decided. It elicited from us heaps of behavior: embarrassment and self-reproach, chummy consensus building that curdled at a moment's notice to feints of real paranoia and isolation, even measures of self-righteous, persecuted fury. The intensity was enthralling, but it was also strangely hollow, because it lacked any real content. For all the theatrics, we revealed nothing of ourselves, told no tales. It was that for which I yearned.

It was the morning of the third day that I fell under suspicion. Irrevocably, as it turned out. "I think we're ignoring the new people," said Roberta Jar. "I've seen it again and again, some newcomer draws the mafia card and sits there, playing innocent and silent, just mowing the village down while we argue. I think we ought to look at Joel, for instance. He isn't saying anything."

"I heard him talking to Doe," someone volunteered. "They have some little thing going on the side."

"Both mafia, then," said one of the leader men, whose every pronouncement was full of unearned certainty. "Take them both out."

"I'm a villager," I said. This was the standard protest, despite its deep meaninglessness: Who wouldn't say that? Someone laughed at me sharply for being unpersuasive. Before I'd assembled a better defense, hands shot up all around the circle. Even Doe voted for my banishment.

Adam Cressner then shepherded the village into night. "The dead usually wander off where they can talk without disturbing the village," he stage-whispered across their bowed heads. I took the hint. As I moved into the hall, Adam returned to narration: "Mafia, open your eyes, and silently agree on someone to kill--" I wondered who the dastards were.

The zombies who'd vacated the parlor were gathered out on the brownstone's stoop, smoking cigarettes and gabbling. They spotted me peering through the front door's doubled glass panes. I made a gesture meant to be interpretable as Be right there, just going for a pee. Someone waved back. I went downstairs.

The half-basement's front room was furnished as a suburban den, with a stereo and large-screen TV, and walls lined with CDs, laser discs, and books, many of them expensive museum catalogues, compendiums of film stills, photo-essays from boutique imprints. I spotted a brightly colored paperback on a shelf of oversized volumes on art and antiquities: Origins, by Stan Lee, a reprint compendium of comic books introducing various Marvel characters: Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four. A sequel, Son of Origins, was shelved beside it. I browsed both, but the Vision wasn't included. He wasn't the sort of character who'd had such a prominent debut--more of a cult figure, I recalled. Like Rhoda or Fraser, he'd been an unplanned star, spun from an ensemble.

The pop-art panels looked thin and fraudulent on white paper, instead of the soft, yellowed rag of the old comics from which they'd been reprinted. Nevertheless, I felt a howling nostalgia rise in me at the sight of the Silver Surfer and Daredevil, characters who'd meant a tremendous amount to me for a brief moment in junior high, then been utterly forgotten. I'd discovered Marvel Comics a year or two after leaving P.S. 29 and Adam Cressner behind. The oddness of Adam's choice in identifying with the Vision had had a troubling chicken-or-egg quality to me then--did the character seem so depressed and diffident to me because of Adam's red face paint? The answer wasn't in Origins, or Son of Origins.

I replaced the books on the shelf and went digging in the walk-in closet instead.

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Men and Cartoons 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Magus_Manders on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This collection has been tagged as both sci-fi and fantasy, but it is really too eclectic and too strange to be defined as a whole in such a way. The eleven stories range from a tale of a commercial dystopian future to a long letter about a failed affair, and several even odder places in between. Though they cover a great array of characters and themes, they all have the same feel of strangeness and discomfort. Lethem can make a suburban family or college house party feel foreign. Unfortunately, a few of these stories are so strange, their point becomes elusive, if it exists at all. Lethem gives the appearance of being a great disciple of Philip K. Dick, which these few stories exemplify. This reviewer feels that part of his ultimate goal is to make the reader approach common situations with greater awareness by turning them into absurdities. A couple of the stories fall flat, with no great effect, but with no great flaw either; however, several more are real gems that exhibit a virtuosity in strangeness and a keen perception in the bizarreness of life.
mattcompton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't learn to like short stories until midway through my senior year of college. I'm still not sure I do. I don't like how we get snapshots instead of full length feature films. I don't like how they come to an abrupt end just as we're beginning to know the characters. I don't even like how tight and focused they are. Most of the time. But midway through my senior year in college, I noticed something different. They started to grow on me. It began in the creative writing class I was taking. Then I started reading the New Yorker's short fiction. Then I started buying short story collections.Which brings us to my first book for 2006. Jonathan Lethem is one of a handful of Jonathans, along with Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Harr, who occasionally get called "the potential voice of his generation." (Ok, maybe not Jonathan Harr). But more so than the other three, Lethem has failed to move away from the settings and the themes of his childhood, both real and imagined. And in Men and Cartoons, which has just been released in paperback, Lethem is singing the same song, but he's playing it 9 different ways. Lethem's stories aren't what you'd call powerful. And his characters aren't what you'd call sympathetic (the sole example being the titular character from the story "Super Goat Man," which I first read in the New Yorker). But on the whole, this collection of stories is rather affecting, each in its own quirky, slightly off-balance way. Lethem has a good ear for dialogue and a good eye for detail, but it's his imagination that carries the day. And it only takes a paragraph or two for the reader to find himself wrapped up in that imagination. Rather than summarize each story, I'll leave it at this:One day, I'll be ready for Lethem to grow up. But I'm not there yet. -1/4/06
TheTwoDs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Lethem is truly an original. Reading his stories, you are amazed at the places, physical and philosophical, he takes you. I especially enjoyed "Access Fantasy" and "This Shape We're In" (included in the US paperback edition).
yarmando on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable. Each story seems to be an exercise in putting you slightly off-balance, and most of them end before they wear out its welcome. I particularly liked "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door" and "Super Goat Man." "Access Fantasy" gets good after the characters begin Advertising.
Smiler69 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was fun to see Lethem taking off in all these different tangents in this collection of short stories¿almost like watching him riff. Short and sweet.
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really don¿t like to read short stories. I usually find them unsatisfying. That notwithstanding, Lethem is an interesting writer who isn¿t afraid to experiment, and sometimes the short story can be the best medium for experimentation. In some cases, such as the stories ¿Access Fantasy¿ and ¿Super Goat Man,¿ he pulls it off. In others, I was left wondering what the point was. But in general, this is a more interesting and therefore readable collection than most.
schwarzz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A quick, breezy read of Lethem's quirky short stories. Very well done overall, although some are more engaging than others. The highlights were: "Planet Big Zero," "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door," & "Super Goat Man."
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not a big fan of the short story genre, but I enjoyed every story in the collection. I liked that a couple of them were bizarre, but all in all, great stories, great believable characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Few who have read works by Jonathan Lethem forget him. His stories and essays, always imaginative, often disturbing, have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times. 'The Fortress of Solitude' was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice for one of last year's best books, and Motherless Brooklyn snagged the National Book Critics Circle Award. Quite a list of credits. Now, here's 'Men and Cartoons,' a collection of 9 short stories, which will surely add to Lethem's already sterling reputation. Each story is sophisticated, sometimes fantastical, all explorations of the human condition. The initial story is 'The Vision,' an account of a neighborhood parlor game called 'mafia.' Fueled by alcohol the players are divided into two teams, 'mafia' and 'village,' including 'false villagers working to bring the village down.' In the end it's a tale of loneliness, of solitary lives in a big city. 'Access Fantasy' reveals a world in which some people live in their cars trapped in a never ending traffic jam, and others dwell in apartments. How does the past affect us? That question is answered for some in 'The Spray,' which finds an apartment burgled and the investigators equipped with a magic spray can allowing people to see the items that have been stolen. Mr. Lethem rounds out his collection with 'The National Anthem,' a correspondence in which broken relations are described. The author has said that he grew up in a rather borderline Brooklyn neighborhood. 'My parents were part of the first wave: bohemians, radicals, and artists,' he continued. 'So I definitely grew up in a world where my parents and their friends were living in the counterculture in the `70s. That very much shaped my perception, and I think it is detectable in my work in a lot of different ways.' How true. And, his memory is infallible as he limns scenes from those years to perfection. Lethem fans will relish his first story collection in 8 years. Each tale is amusing, touching, and, most of all, original. - Gail Cooke