Matthew Kneale’s Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance seems oddly named until you realize it was published in 2005. The book is a collection of stories focused on male protagonists who seem either clueless or hopeless when it comes to functioning in the wider world or redeeming an uneventful life.
The stories are accomplished—they deliver all the necessary elements of a good short story and do so in convincing and coherent prose. Some have a little twist at the end, although nothing so heavy-handed as an O’Henry. But it was impossible to care about any of Kneale’s people. They seemed like losers to me and a few were rather thick as well.
The clod who takes his family to China and dares to depart from an organized tour, trying to pronounce a tonal language in a train station rather than point to the Chinese characters, ends up in the middle of nowhere because he is so exceedingly arrogant and tone-deaf. Duh. A suicide bomber loses his nerve and then loses his nerve again. And so? Brits who buy a run-down Italian villa and leave the renovations to return to England are shocked—shocked!—to discover their idyllic domicile has been fitted out with Ikea cabinets, etc. Could not care less about them, but I did feel bad about the formerly charming old house.
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the short story form. I once wrote one—just one–that got the most encouraging hand-written rejection from The Paris Review. I still have that slip of paper somewhere. Perhaps I will revisit the idea of writing short stories someday. But I don’t really gravitate towards reading them and, when I do, the bleak modern experiences are depressing most of the time. Don’t really need any help there. I’d rather read stories about people, no matter how fanciful, who I might root for or be entertained by. Would not object to characters who might leave me nonplussed. But these Brits, in the midst of their “abundance,” were someone else’s cup of tea.
Find an abandoned stash of cocaine and start selling it to pad your miserable failed-law-career bank account? Jerk. Stick your novel in a drawer and follow your wealthy older lover around like a puppy because she prefers you that way? Wimp. Get drunk because you have no prospects and move all the garden gnomes in town to one central location with your mates? No wonder you have no prospects. The only character I liked was an irascible old grandfather who didn’t give a crap what people thought of him and didn’t mind being slightly outrageous. That dude had some imagination. The rest of them? Not so much.
Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance Matthew Kneale | Doubleday 2005