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Leyner's humor suffers in short pieces


Mark Leyner is slumming in this book, which isn't too bad if you're interested in being amused. This collection of short humor pieces, most of them previously published in magazines, is superficial but still shows off his perverse imagination, and I'm all for that.

For Mr. Leyner is one strange boy. My introduction to his work came with the 1990 publication of his novel "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist," in which he described a visit to a trendy New York club this way:

". . . We went to a place called the Coal Hole, a restaurant on the Upper West Side located in an old coal mine. You take an elevator car about 300 ft. underground to the dining room. It's pitch dark and everyone wears one of those hard hats with the attached spotlight. Most of the waiters have black lung disease. It was the last restaurant Mimi Sheraton reviewed before quitting the Times and having her jaw wired shut."

His 1992 novel, "Et Tu, Babe," similarly showed his affinity for the manic, the over-the-top. The hero was a character named Mark Leyner, and he described himself as "only 36 years old; I've achieved international notoriety as a best-selling author, body-builder, martial artist; I make more in a year from product endorsements than most people make in a lifetime; I've got a multi-million dollar headquarters with a guard tower, gatehouses, patrol dogs, armed sentries, a vast warren of underground tunnels; I've got a gorgeous wife and an entourage of gophers and sycophants . . ."

So you get the idea that Mr. Leyner's mind doesn't work like the rest of ours. Invariably, too, his writing is described in features and reviews as somehow affected by drug ingestion. But focusing on the author's supposed recreational habits PTC short-changes him. He's merely marvelously inventive, as nonlinear and unempirical as S. J. Perelman was in his time. And he can be hysterical.

But though several of these pieces are quite well done, Mr. Leyner's writing seems best when he's on an extended riff, as in his novels. When he's doing shorter pieces, he becomes more of a joke-meister, one fully capable of great one-liners but with no sense of where he wants to go.

Though he's too shrewd to say so, one of Mr. Leyner's chief pleasures is the demolishing of pretense -- which means he's got most of American pop culture as material. ("Et Tu, Babe," for example, was an extended take on celebrity.) Thus, in "The Great Pretenders," he begins by noting a news item that tells of a Toronto real estate developer "who is hiring actors and models to play happy homeowners in its Windermere Gate development . . ."

He's intrigued, not outraged. Four paragraphs later, Mr. Leyner confesses to his own subterfuge:

"In all fairness, I must admit that I'm guilty of engaging in occasional recreational dissimulation, myself. Whereas some guys like to go off fly-fishing or spelunking or cuckolding Iowans, I like to catch some R and R by renting a small office in some sleepy southern town and posing as a dermatologist. Give me a week of excising cysts, incising carbuncles, chemabrading acne scars and lasering away spider veins, and I'm completely refreshed, revitalized . . ."

"The Good Seed" is a short rumination on the supposed existence in Manhattan of the largest sperm bank in America. A lot of what he writes is not acceptable for a family newspaper, and indeed it's unclear at times whether Mr. Leyner is doing honest reporting or is raiding his fertile and fevered brain. It's wickedly funny, though.

But ultimately, this reader got the feeling that his imagination was being reined in by the brief lengths of the pieces. They allow less of a chance for Mr. Leyner to be bizarre, to drop non sequiturs and, most important, to draw blood.

"The Mary Poppins Kidnapping," a take-off on "copycat" crimes brought on by mass-media saturation, is an example. It's way too short (three pages) to do any real damage; at the same time, curiously, it seems labored, probably because the author doesn't seem fully engaged.

As Mr. Leyner is closer to being a satirist than a humorist, his strength is in the longer stuff, which allows him to set things up more and to stretch out. For as witty as he can be, the greatest impact of his writing comes when he can allow us the chance to see just how warped his mind is. This book doesn't do that.


Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog"

Author: Mark Leyner

Publisher: Harmony

-! Length, price: 216 pages, $19

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