One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories By B.J. Novak, $25.
Early in B.J. Novak’s debut collection of stories, One More Thing, a dead man tries to meet with his long-dead grandmother in heaven, only to find that she’s too busy giving Frank Sinatra blow jobs. “You have infinite time here, and there are infinite things to do, but you still don’t end up doing much of it,” Nana says once she’s extricated Frank from her mouth. “You do what you love most, over and over.” It’s a moment of simple grace in a funny short story (“No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg”) that could stand for what is best and worst about Novak’s debut: He does a few things quite well—an absurd situation that flips on irony or horrific epiphany—and then he tends to repeat himself.
Novak, best known for starring in and writing for The Office, is a sly social satirist with a keen dark side, not unlike the early stories Woody Allen wrote for The New Yorker, which bit with wit and vulnerability. When Novak hits his mark, like in the Craigslist-inspired “Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30pm on Wednesday,” he is able to show the desperation of 21st century interaction (“I know this sounds crazy to say after one encounter but I kind of fell for you pretty hard & it has been forever since I’ve connected with anyone like this & my heart is kind of broken in a million pieces”), while simultaneously mocking the very enterprise of connection we’ve created.
With 64 stories to choose from, however, One More Thing ends up too long by half, revealing Novak’s tic for jumping toward a punch line versus expanding around one. Often the case is that the title of the story is the story, like “The Vague Restaurant Critic,” a one-page piece that concludes with, “He didn’t care. He knew what he did. But he kind of did care. He wished other people knew what he did, too.” A simple joke, a funny one, but there are larger spaces Novak could have filled here, like he does in the book’s longest story, “Kellogg’s (or: The Last Wholesome Fantasy of the Middle-School Boy),” which hilariously and tragically details what happens when a young boy wins a box-top prize of $100,000.
Still, One More Thing is a fine debut, one that would have seen publication with or without a famous name attached to it, and Novak seems primed to be that rare thing: an actor who is truly an artist, one who understands both the craft of writing and the huge challenge of landing the perfect joke.