Speaking With The Angel
edited by Nick Hornby
(Riverhead Books)

A collection of 12 stories from an equal number of writers, the table of contents for Speaking With the Angel reads like the all-star line-up for young literary hotshots; Melissa Banks; Nick Hornby; Dave Eggers. And, it's as good as it promises. Well, it's pretty good. Like any smorgasbord--which is essentially what the book is--the helpings of the really good dishes are too small and they must share the plate with lukewarm literary servings.

Not surprisingly, the standout story is from Eggers. Told from the perspective of a happy-go-lucky dog, "After I Was Thrown in the River," uses a dopey dog voice to emote and to capture sophisticated emotions. "You should do this sometime," Eggers' canine narrator explains about jumping over a small gully. "I am a rocket. My time over the gap is a life. I am a cloud, so slow, for an instant I am a slow-moving cloud whose movement is elegant, cavalier, like sleep." He also wonders how the squirrels can be so gleefully entertained as one of the dogs crashes and breaks her leg; this yearning to understand others' dark impulses could easily be applied to wondering about road rage or Republicans.

The other remarkable story in the collection is submitted from the book's editor, Hornby. With verse much more muscular than his debut High Fidelity, "Nipple Jesus" apes the voice of a simpleton London bouncer who lands a job as a guard for a controversial piece of art. Like most of the stories, the narrators have a gee-shucks adolescent curiosity that awakens to some nirvanaesque understanding of the world around them. In "Nipple Jesus," the bodyguard finds himself not only as the artwork's protector, but also as its greatest admirer.

In the introduction to the collection, Hornby, as the book's editor, doesn't let on to whether or not there is a central issue that all the stories are trying to address. (Instead he writes a haunting prologue about his autistic son.) Even so, by design or purely by juxtaposition, the collection provides one of the most varied and textured recent examinations of the sense of alienation and the impulse to belong. It is a great collection. Well, pretty good.