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'Fly, Already' Doesn't Quite Get Airborne

The narrator of "One Gram Short," the second story in Israeli author Etgar Keret's new short story collection, Fly Already, is desperate for some weed. He's not much of a smoker himself, but the woman he has a crush on — a coffee-shop waitress named Shimka — is a fan, and he's hoping he can impress her by offering to share a joint with her.

The one pothead he knows is high and dry (well, just dry), but does know of one way to score some green: by doing a favor for an attorney who has a medical supply. The lawyer is representing the family of a girl run over by a car; they're suing the driver for millions. He promises to give the narrator and his friend a healthy amount of pot if they'll come to the trial and pose as the dead girl's family members, weeping and cursing at the driver, hoping to sway the judge. "Smoking dope is against the law," the narrator notes, "but screaming at someone who ran over a little girl — that's not only legal, it's downright normative."

The story ends with the narrator 20 grams of pot richer, nervously approaching Shimka for a date. But it takes a clever left turn in the final paragraphs, leaving the reader to wonder how it really ends. The story showcases Keret at his best — tender and inventive, not giving too much away. It's one of the highlights of Fly Already, a hit-or-miss collection from a writer who's quite impressive when he's on his game.

Keret uses the vague ending to his advantage in his best stories, including the sweet and heartbreaking "Crumb Cake," about a 50-year-old man who lives with his ailing elderly mother. ("Really, I don't think there's a disease in the world she doesn't have. Except for AIDS, maybe. And lupus.") His mother treats him like a child, scolding him for being overweight, and accompanying him to the basketball court to ward off bullies.

She reluctantly agrees to buy him a lottery ticket for his birthday, and quizzes him gently on what he'll do if he wins. The story ends in the middle of their conversation, and a hint that the man might have run into some luck. It's an unexpectedly sweet story that asks readers to consider that while some family relationships might seem dysfunctional, there's often more there than meets the eye.

Keret shines when he's gentle and when he gives himself room to explore his characters. This isn't always the case in Fly Already, though. The two-page story "At Night," which briefly explores a family in financial trouble, suffers from its brevity and its pointless whimsy — it approaches cleverness, but never quite gets there. The same applies to the metafictional "Fungus," about a car crash; it ends with a kind of philosophical navel-gazing that just doesn't rise to the standards he's set for himself in the book's other stories.

Keret shines when he's gentle and when he gives himself room to explore his characters. This isn't always the case in 'Fly Already,' though.

It also shows one of Keret's main limitations: the more dyspeptic his stories get, the less interesting they are. In "Goodeed," a group of women discover they can make themselves feel better by giving outsize sums of money to homeless people: "They wanted to see him cry or thank Jesus for sending them to him, as if they were saints and not just very rich women." The problem with the story isn't that it's cynical, it's that Keret's pessimism seems unearned: Sometimes generosity is selfish; everybody knows that. The story says nothing new, and as the others like it, it comes across as filler.

Keret at his best is brilliant, though. In the collection's penultimate story, "Pineapple Crush," a day care worker meets a middle-aged woman on his daily post-work trip to the beach, where he smokes a joint to ease the tedium of his life: "The first hit of the day is like a childhood friend, a first love, a commercial for life," he explains. "But it's different from life itself, which is something that, if I could have, I would have returned to the store ages ago."

The two start smoking together every day, until the woman tells him she won't be able to come around anymore. The news crushes the narrator, who realizes his life has become nothing more than a sad string of smoking sessions and Tinder dates. "I missed someone I didn't even really know," he thinks. "And that was exciting and at the same time humiliating. Because that feeling of missing someone was mostly evidence of how vapid my life had become."

It's a lovely, understated story about the human need for connection, and Keret approaches it subtly, portraying the narrator's loneliness without resorting to pity. He doesn't overplay his hand or feel the need to wax whimsical; he's content to consider the human condition in a compassionate, unshowy way. The story is nearly perfect; some of the others in this collection are almost as good. But Fly Already, as a whole, is too uneven — it's a book that feels like a missed opportunity.

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Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.