The trouble with some of our most versatile authors is that you never know which of their multiple personalities will turn up on the page. In the case of award-winning Maine writer Ben Marcus, this can be especially maddening. Among his incarnations, he’s a vivid chronicler of everyday heartbreak, a dark obsessive, and a purveyor of surreal doomsday tales. Not to mention the hyper-inventive linguistic juggler who creates his own realms.

Welcome to the world of Ben Marcus, novelist and teacher, rebel, enigma and wit. His new short story collection, with its 15 eclectic pieces, is sure to elicit debate. “Leaving The Sea” offers a wide-angle view of Marcus’s stylistic range and an accurate sampling of the author’s M.O.

For fans of his acclaimed 2012 novel, “The Flame Alphabet,” a number of these stories may seem familiar. Matters of family and loyalty, dire apocalyptic language, a fixation on death – all are present in this new collection.

In the best of these pieces, Marcus is a mainstream storyteller whose often troubled tales are leavened by a keen eye and caustic wit. In “What Have You Done?” a family reunion prompts the return of Paul, the errant son, now 40, whose history casts a long and dark shadow.

“This was how it would be for the whole visit,” Marcus writes, “the three of them playing hot potato with fat Paul.” Then later: “All signs of Paul were gone from the room now,” Marcus says. “It was hard not to realize what kind of kid his parents wished they’d had, and when he thought about that kind of kid it was tempting for Paul to want to track, hunt, and eat the little thing.”

Elsewhere Marcus is a provocateur, projecting a future that’s dystopic and unsettling. In some stories, he concocts devices that are deliberately jarring – a “decay timer,” “mistake tunnel,” and “animosity sticks.” In others, his characters debate penalties for those who choose to protect their families over themselves.


And then there are those obsessions. Many of Marcus’s characters are profoundly stuck in a moment, or situation, that turns claustrophobic, taking on a life of its own. In the book’s last and longest piece, “The Moors,” the main character, Thomas, waits his turn at the office beverage cart, behind a colleague who’s refilling her coffee mug. For some 40 pages, “fat Thomas the sadness machine,” as Marcus has dubbed him, ruminates on the world of possibility, however remote, that he imagines with this woman.

This tragicomic tale, though entertaining, would have been more so had it arrived earlier in the book, in abridged form. But by book’s end, readers may have had their fill of self-loathing, often overweight, middle-age men who fixate on their ineptitude with women. Nothing against these hapless souls – or any subset, for that matter – but readers may find such protracted musings more indulgent than literary.

“Leaving The Sea” is a challenging and uneven book, filled with stories that reflect the author at his most elegant, edgy, and excessive. It’s not for everyone, nor would that even please an author who fairly disdains accessibility. For venturesome readers, though, Marcus is flamboyantly original. He’s willing to take risks that pay off in some cases much more than others. Which gets back to the virtue of a broad collection: If an author goes too far afield, readers can always turn the page and start anew.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews for numerous publications. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News.

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