Simon Van Booy’s “Tales of Accidental Genius” — six short stories and a novella — feels like a soft-spoken friend whispering stories to you about searching for kindness in a mundane world. In a smooth style all his own, Van Booy crafts beautiful sentences full of energy and has wonderfully simple depictions of everyday life.
There’s a special intimacy between the characters and the reader. In “A Slow and Deliberate Disappearance,” an amateur magician named Eric sits with his wife as she’s ending their marriage. Van Booy uses two powerful sentences to conjure pity for Eric and convey a sense of absolute loneliness.
“She had never seen a man cry in such a way, and tried to comfort him by saying that the children didn’t need looking after anymore. In a few years they would be out of school and have their own lives.”
The story juxtaposes Eric’s loneliness with two people in the nursing home where Eric performs. Bill and Wilma spend their days together, and Van Booy lets readers make their own assumptions about the couple until all is revealed at the end. Any good writer could accomplish the emotional intensity of Van Booy’s story, but it takes a great one to do so in 10 pages.
“The Goldfish,” my favorite story in the collection, can only be described as gut-wrenchingly lighthearted. The problem seems trivial, but you feel a certain intensity for the main character. An old man goes from an aquarium to an animal hospital to a pet store to try to find a cure for Piper, his sick goldfish. Akin, a young assistant at the pet store, ends up going to the old man’s house to right the wrong of his boss, who gave bad advice to make a quick buck.
Akin arrives and looks in the aquarium to see “a large goldfish on the surface … in the early stages of decomposition.”
Though the story starts out following the old man, Van Booy skillfully manipulates the narrative toward Akin. This shift creates a deeper, more complex meaning in what could’ve been a straightforward story.
I personally didn’t care for the novella. Like the rest of the stories, it’s well-written, but the form of the piece felt jarring. Van Booy tells the story through a working movie script or story notes that start and stop abruptly. It’s a risk that didn’t work for me, but I can see how others might enjoy the snapshot approach.
“Accidental Genius” is Van Booy’s third short story collection. The Brooklyn, N.Y.,-based author has also written two novels and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Regardless of one story, “Accidental Genius” cements him as one of my favorite contemporary short story writers.
“Tales of Accidental Genius” by Simon Van Booy (247 pages; Harper Perennial; $14.99)