Trickster, tinkerer, inventor, parodist - at 86, Robert Coover is the last man standing, alongside John Barth, who is 87, of a postwar generation of postmodern experimental writers that included John Hawkes, William Gaddis and William Gass.
One has never come to Coover's fiction expecting minor-chord epiphanies or realistic observations about how we live. He delivers instead naughtily reimagined fairy tales and movie scenarios and other testimonies from his own devil-ready twilight zone.
Coover snaps on a latex glove and reaches up into literature's bunghole, as if to turn the whole project inside out. His stories are filled with references to bodily functions and violent gross-outs.
They're Grand Guignol entertainments for jaded eyeballs. They're often killingly funny. All of God's checks bounce at once. Coover reports from an outpost of what Barth called, in a well-known essay, "the literature of exhaustion."
He has written many novels and books of stories. The best of these stories are now collected in Going for a Beer - a deceptively aw-shucks title for a volume that more accurately would add to those four words "in a town in which all lawns are watered with the blood of virgins, every deck of cards contains 26 jokers, all herrings are red herrings and every citizen carries a pitchfork or a torch."
When Coover's stories don't work, which is about half the time even here, they're dreadful - arid experiments that are the equivalent of sucking on the wrong end of a filtered cigarette. When there's no anchor in normality and you don't care about the characters and the plot is skipping sideways and every heart is Bakelite black, it's easy to find yourself reading the same paragraph three times because you could not grok why this matters the first two times. His lesser stories have the gravitas of a magazine subscription blow-in card.
But when they work, oh my. Take The Babysitter, his influential story from 1969. A babysitter is home with two young children. Her boyfriend and his friend may be coming to rape her. The children's father may have lascivious designs of his own. She's giving baths and watching television.
The story doesn't just ping around in terms of perspective. It pings around in time, and does not bother to mediate between fantasy and reality.
At times you feel you are seeing the way a fly sees, through compound eyes, all those lenses at once. The sensation is that of being in an astounding if disturbing movie, in which you are the only human with a ticket.
Coover's stories are dirty, dirty, dirty. Each breast is a heaving breast. Perhaps no American writer, with the possible exception of Tom Wolfe, so relishes the word 'haunches'. The sex in You Must Remember This, Coover's 1985 parody of "Casablanca," is stupendously winning. Ilsa says to Rick, after one of their adulterous romps, "I am afraid we haff stained your nice carpet, Richard."
The descriptions of Rick's backside are for the ages. We read about how his "melancholy buttocks - beaten in childhood, lashed at sea, run lean in union skirmishes, sunburned in Ethiopia, and shot at in Spain - look gloomier than ever, swarthy and self-pitying, agape now with a kind of heroic sadness." These are cheeks you'd nominate for best supporting actor.
One story reimagines the biblical tale of Noah's ark from Noah's brother's perspective. (Soaking wet and angry, the brother asks, "How did he know?") Others reimagine Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Goldilocks.
In one story, a cartoon car runs over a real man and a woman has breasts that resemble pinball bumpers. In another, a stick figure is drafted into our world because he's needed to represent the human condition. In a recent story titled Invasion of the Martians, pea-green aliens come to Earth and zap a Texas senator's manhood off.
You must bring a strong stomach to Coover's stories. There are a lot of "liquids and solids," to quote the title of a chapter of J R Ackerley's classic memoir, My Dog Tulip. Enemas, constipation, sour burps, streaked underwear, viscera, vomit, hemorrhoids, "the aroma of fresh pee in plush upholstery" - we are constantly reminded of our own soiled nature.
A handful of Coover stories is probably enough for me. A slimmer volume than this one might be a portable classic.
Coover is among the pioneer mutants of American literature, to borrow a phrase Leslie Fiedler bestowed upon William S Burroughs. You catch his rebel DNA in the work of writers as disparate as George Saunders and Sheila Heti and Donald Antrim. Each of these fiction writers often declares, as might the chair of a board of directors at a meeting: old business is over. We will move on to new.