Reading radio dramatist Frank's vivid collection of eight short works of fiction is like watching eight people take a wrong turn into a dark and threatening neighborhood. In this world, the consequences of an action or a chance encounter are always troubling and unsatisfying. ``Tell Me What to Do'' portrays an adulterous couple who cram an entire affair into one week, only to have their lives become empty and spiritless; in ``Fat Man,'' a kleptomaniac gains weight as insulation against his feelings; a couple's dinner conversation becomes more and more disturbing as the woman reveals herself in ``Date''; the title story chronicles a vacationing teenager's seduction by an older man in St. Thomas and the impact it has on the boy's life. Retreat and remembrance are key acts in these jarring, unsettling tales, most of which start with a wide-angle view of the world, then narrow everything down to unfeeling sex, mindless repetition of desultory actions, and death. Still, they provide little moments of recognition that make even the bleakest stories involving. Sharply observed and simply told, these are disquieting portraits of desire and unfulfillment. (Dec.)
``You know, when I think about myself and the life I've led, I feel self-loathing, shame, disgust,'' says the grossly obese main character of the story ``Fat Man.'' ``But when I imagine myself as a character in a novel . . . well, I think I'm pretty interesting, kind of offbeat, intriguing, entertaining.'' This self-description of the title character in ``Fat Man'' might apply to many of radio dramatist Frank's characters. ``Tell Me What To Do'' traces the emotional dance of a couple in a continuing affair whose need for self-protection keeps them distant from each other. The parallel narratives of ``Night'' focus on Kevin, an ex-con Vietnam vet working for a New Age guru, and his mother, a stripper. When combined with Frank's surprising plot twists, the result is a collection that's ``kind of offbeat, intriguing, entertaining.'' For larger public libraries.-- Lawrence Rungren, Bedford Free P.L., Mass.
Joe Frank is one of a rare breed, a literary radio artist. He broadcasts his quirky little stories across the night airwaves to listeners of National Public Radio and Los Angeles' KCRW and now has published seven of his distinctive tales and one radio play. As potent in print as on the air, each of these narratives seems confided or recited with a lot of sighing, head shaking, and pauses to sip a drink or draw on a cigarette. Frank's characters have an odd and appealing flatness, a sort of perplexed fatalism and unquestioning helplessness that is more naive than jaded. In "Tell Me What to Do," a man finds himself involved in an affair with a woman who both angers and thrills him. The plot is ordinary enough, but the particulars, such as how their eyeglasses function as shields so that their removal becomes an erotic act, are riveting. In "Night," two rambling stories about the improvised lives of a Vietnam vet and a stripper are told simultaneously, but we don't get the connection until the end. Frank is disarming, seducing us with likable characters and then subjecting them to moments of terror, ugliness, or devastating pointlessness. TV is Frank's next venue; watch for an HBO special.
Frank, best known for his evening radio dramas broadcast over NPR, presents seven short stories and a playthe radio origins of which lend a compelling voice to his portraits of modern urban loneliness, fear, and alienation. In "Tell Me What to Do," a New York executive has a fleeting affair with a woman in his office, is later abandoned by his wife, then finds himself alone and unloved before he quite knows what hit him. The protagonist of "Fat Man" sidles through monotonous days and fantasy-filled nights, having somehow failed to make the transition from cynical college student to productive adult. In the title story, a young man's fate is unveiled while he's on vacation on St. Thomas, where he becomes infatuated with a local prostitute but falls unwittingly into bed with a homosexual seducer. Though hardly optimistic by any reckoning, Frank's tales nevertheless mesmerize the reader as they open doors to intensely private moments of self-contemplation, unacknowledged despair, and desperate, surreal fantasy. Wandering among strip joints, liquor stores, and anonymous hotels, watching TV, joining religious cults, and sometimes playing a little guitar, his characters play at picturing themselves as heroes in a novel or wondering about their shrinks' private lives while the seconds of their existence tick slowly away. "A change has come over the world," states a character in "The Decline of Spengler: A Radio Play," the most abstract and, in the end, the least affecting of the pieces presented here. "Dark thoughts are born. Dark deeds ripen in the midst of their vapors. The eye of God no longer shines on us." Fortunately, as Frank proves here, we humans can console ourselves inthese dark times with the magic of a story spellbindingly told.