"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W" by Gabriel Brownstein

The inhabitants of a shabby Manhattan apartment building live out stories inspired by Fitzgerald, Kafka, Auden and other literary giants

By Amy Reiter

Published October 10, 2002 10:34PM (EDT)

In his literary debut, a collection of short fiction titled "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt 3W," Gabriel Brownstein pulls off a pretty nifty trick. Here and there, he borrows titles, plots, characters, dialogue and descriptions from such literary greats as Fitzgerald, Auden, Hawthorne, Kafka and Singer -- or steals them, as he puts it in a note to his readers -- and yet puts them to such good use that it's hard to imagine even the original authors being too troubled by the theft.

Certainly, it won't bother your average reader one little bit. So seamlessly does Brownstein weave these bits and chunks, constructs and conceits into his own quirky, glintingly lively narratives and make them so very much his own that they come off as completely fresh and original. Sometimes sly, sometimes silly and often truly moving, each of Brownstein's diverse yet connected stories may come in a fairly wacky package, but each ultimately reveals deeper truths about the human condition: a kick in the pants turned twist in the gut. And I mean that in the very best way.

Five of the collection's nine stories focus on residents of an apartment building called the Old Manse on Manhattan's Upper West Side -- on West 86th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, to be precise. And as attuned as Brownstein is to the details of the building itself -- from the gargoyles that adorn its exterior to the polished floors, clanking pipes and outmoded dumbwaiter shafts within -- his prose really comes alive as it captures the strange stories of its inhabitants.

"Mushe Des Beaux Arts," in which Brownstein samples Auden, introduces us to a kid named Davey Birnbaum, whom we'll meet several times again in this collection, and his buddies Zev Grubin and Kevin MacMichaelman. Through Davey's eyes, we watch as their put-upon neighbor, a slightly older, oft-teased kid named Solly Schlachter, tries out a set of wings fashioned by his father, a crazy former proctologist, who then flings the kid off the roof.

Solly dies, of course, and while Davey's dad says he fell straight to earth and landed "like a popped bag of trash," Davey remembers it differently: "He rose skyward, wings cupping the air, then glided down over the treetops and playing fields of Riverside Park." But, like Icarus, the elements do Solly in. "He flapped his wings, and in one awful heave they popped -- blew out from inward like a cheap umbrella."

See what I mean about Brownstein mixing the classic and the modern to great effect?

He does it again -- and perhaps best -- in the collection's title story, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 3W," which, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's story of the same name (minus the "3W"), follows the life of a man born old who grows younger with every year. Only in Brownstein's version, the man's ancestral home happens to be an apartment in that same building on West 89th Street, and his strange existence is, at least partially, some kind of commentary on Jewish identity. (Button's dandy, assimilated father is convinced that the old Jewish man born from his non-Jewish wife's loins is there to expose and shame him, and Button himself finds his way through America feeling like an immigrant forced to take up foreign customs in a strange land.) But the story is also about more than that: love, acceptance, openness, growth.

In "Wakefield, 7E," "A Penal Colony All His Own, 11E" (another highlight) and "The Dead Fiddler, 5E," Brownstein in turn evokes Hawthorne, Kafka and Singer. But he goes it solo, working only from his own imagination, in "Bachelor Party," "Safety," "The Inventor of Love" and "The Speedboat." Each of these succeeds on its own terms and reveals Brownstein to be equally as adept at creation as he is at adaptation.

Clearly, Brownstein doesn't need to draw on the works of these old literary masters to spin a good yarn. Yet his decision to do so allows him to find inspiration in unusual places and to locate in one place a myriad of stories told all sorts of different ways. Brownstein unearths a gem and examines its facets from various perspectives. And any way he looks at it, it sparkles.

Our next pick: A deliciously wicked man rants about his friends, his women and his children

Amy Reiter

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