Critics like to compare Nashville novelist Adam Ross to other writers, and not to your average, everyday, ordinary writers either. Perhaps it's inevitable that Ross, the author of Mr. Peanut (Knopf, 2010) and Ladies and Gentlemen (Knopf, 2011), should inspire the loftiest comparisons — how often does a debut novelist rack up outrageous accolades both in translation and across the entire English-speaking world, including on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and then turn in an equally compelling performance with a short-story collection barely a year later?
In any case, critics have elevated Ross into extremely rarefied company indeed, starting with Chekhov, no less. Dean Bakopoulos, writing in the Times Book Review, led off, noting that the book's "embedded narratives arrive effortlessly, in a page from Chekhov's playbook." Bakopoulos went on to compare Ross to Raymond Chandler, Italo Calvino, Alice Munro and Raymond Carver. Daniel Roberts picked up the name-dropping baton in The Rumpus, noting Ross' similarity to James Salter and, again, to Carver — and then aimed even higher: "Perhaps more than any other influence, Ross is working in the tradition of a story master like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who penned tales that were short but haunting."
In The Boston Globe, Steve Almond, who didn't much care for Mr. Peanut but who loved Ladies and Gentlemen, compared Ross to both James Baldwin and Philip Roth before noting, again, the influence of the Raymonds: "He has managed to wed the masterful plotting of Raymond Chandler with the exquisite characterization of Raymond Carver, to prove once and for all that exhibiting a deep empathy for your characters deepens the thrill as they, and we, barrel toward their fates."
What storyteller can claim mastery of the art if at least one critic doesn't compare him to Flannery O'Connor, as Liz Colville did in The Daily? But Michiko Kakutani — a critic who cannot read a book by Adam Ross without doling out praise with one hand and snatching it back with the other, this time turning her review in The New York Times into yet another opportunity to lecture Ross about his world view — felt bound to note Ross' similarity to the writer whose very name appears on the highest honor the genre can bestow: "Whereas 'Mr. Peanut' was a dazzling — and sometimes overly complicated — postmodern hall of mirrors, the stories in this volume are old-fashioned, almost O. Henryesque tales that point up both Mr. Ross's extraordinary gifts as a writer and the limitations of his willfully bleak view of human nature."
The way this small collection with very great aims has inspired comparisons to universally acknowledged masters of the craft is only one of the reasons Ross was interviewed this year by the luminaries of literary journalism, including Stephen Usery at WYPL in Memphis, John Seigenthaler for PBS' A Word on Words, and WNYC's Leonard Lopate. It's also why Kirkus, which gave the book a starred review in May, has now listed it as a Best Fiction of 2011 pick for short-story collections.
Here are a few excerpts from critical responses to Ladies and Gentlemen:
"One of Ross' great strengths is walking that eternally fine line between showing the reader things—a bloody fistfight between brothers, or a Twilight Zone-esque reveal—and the heartbeat monitoring of a character's internal life." —Kirkus Reviews
"Ladies and Gentlemen is clever in all the right ways, even while paying homage to the most traditional of forms. ... [T]hese are all-enveloping tales, well paced, tense and driven by effortless prose. Reading them, you often want to leave the room before things get out of hand. But the stories are too riveting to abandon, the kind that make you ignore repeated calls to dinner." —Dean Bakopoulos, writing in The New York Times Book Review
"Ladies and Gentlemen is not a linked collection (such books, like Olive Kitteridge, have been in vogue recently) and is all the better for it. Instead of reappearing characters, the connector of these stories is the author's strong, likeable voice, which remains apparent from story to story, in both third- and first-person narration. It's a voice that favors crisp banter, brutal honesty, and often, morbidity (see: Mr. Peanut)." —Daniel Roberts, writing in The Rumpus
"These are traditional stories, written in precise and plainspoken prose, and devoid of the trickery that marred Mr. Peanut. What makes them electrifying is the author's knack for luring his characters into emotional danger. His tales build suspense by immersing us in the lives of average people, then demonstrating how easily such lives can tip into tumult." —Steve Almond, writing in The Boston GlobeTo read an uncut version of this article — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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