Edgy, dark, morbid, scathing and, at moments, surreal. These are all apt descriptions of Alix Straus’s new collection The Joy of Funerals: A Novel in Stories (St. Martin’s Press, $12.95). Each story, as the title suggests, deals with death: In one, a young widow who lusts after the men she meets in the cemetery (there is one whose yarmulke she filches); in another a woman’s female lover is murdered by a stranger. Each story also shares a narrative voice that is hip, ironic, and knowing. After the widow burns the photographs of her husband, she “sprinkle[s] my husband onto my bowl of cereal. It looks like charcoal confectioner’s sugar is smothering my Rice Krispies. I add milk, stir and eat.” Another thirty-ish narrator tells herself to approach the evening’s blind date: “with optimistic outlook of a woman awaiting execution.”
The final and longest story in the collection weaves the rest of the stories together. Its narrator, Nina Perlman, is a troubled young woman who derives her greatest sense of meaning from attending the funerals of strangers, including those alluded to in the eight previous tales. It’s an unusual gambit and not an altogether successful one, but the hiss, crackle and bite of Strauss’s prose coupled with the taut energy of her narratives make this a debut collection a sharp and mordantly funny read.