From The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 234: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Third Series (2001), pp. 96-104. Copyright © 2001 by Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company
Critics have classified Richard Grayson as a postmodern metafictionist, an experimentalist, a compulsive autobiographer, social critic, satirist, parodist, and stand-up comedian. For the past three decades, he has also been one of the most prolific and inventive practitioners of the short-story form, although only followers of the little-magazine scene know it. Grayson's fictional concerns include, but are not limited to, the project of fiction-making itself and the attendant commercial difficulties in an era when it is possible to ask the question that was the focus of a conference at Brooklyn College that Grayson coordinated: "Can publishing and literature co-exist?"
The titles of Grayson's story collections reflect his preoccupation with self-reflexivity and the American pop culture of celebrities, fads, bumper stickers, and T-shirt slogans. Picking through the junk heap of American culture (television, teen magazines, Soap Opera Digest ) for his subjects, Grayson registers the effect of this commercial bombardment on the individual. The light, comic, sometimes flat and seemingly superficial quality of his fiction belies the seriousness of his critique.
Richard Grayson was born on 4 June 1951 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Daniel Grayson, a clothing manufacturer and salesman, and Marilyn Grayson, a homemaker. He was educated in the public schools of Brooklyn and graduated from Midwood High School in 1968. After a year in which the panic attacks he suffered grew into full-fledged agoraphobia, Grayson entered Brooklyn College, where he was a student activist and from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science (Phi Beta Kappa) in June 1973.
Intending to become a writer, Grayson enrolled in a master's program in English at Richmond College (now the College of Staten Island) and then in the fledgling Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Brooklyn College, where he studied fiction writing with Susan Fromberg Schaeffer and metafictionists Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg, two of the founding members of the Fiction Collective.
As a graduate student Grayson's goal was to produce one story each week and submit his work not only to his fiction-writing workshop classes but also to the scores of literary and "little" magazines being published in the mid to late 1970s.
In 1975 Grayson began his long college teaching career as an adjunct and temporary full-time instructor of English and other subjects at Long Island University. In the same year he started working as an editorial assistant at the Fiction Collective and published his first story in a literary magazine, New Writers. Within five years, Grayson had published more than one hundred stories in little magazines.
With the exception of his first hardcover collection, With Hitler in New York and Other Stories (1979), and his articles and essays in People, The New York Times, and other periodicals, Grayson's career has taken place totally in the world of small presses, little magazines, and later, online magazines. Grayson's first book was a collection of six stories, Disjointed Fictions, published first in 1978 as a special issue of the magazine X, A Journal of the Arts. In his introduction to a 1981 edition of the book, Richard Kostelanetz called Grayson "a compulsive fictioner who . . . has a penchant for transforming everything he can into fiction."
As Kostelanetz noted, a principal character in Grayson's work is named "Richard Grayson," making it difficult for some critics to separate the author from the character. In Disjointed Fictions Grayson evinced many elements found in his later work: revealing details, often of an embarrassing nature, that purport to be from the author's own life and those of his relatives; pop culture references and celebrities used as characters; puns, silly jokes, and odd references to obscure scientific or historical facts; an attempt to get the reader to believe that the story is being improvised on the spot; and a concern with the purpose and uses of fiction.
The first story in Disjointed Fictions is "A Disjointed Fiction," five seemingly unrelated fragments, the first of which is an acknowledged (within the fragment) steal from Jorge Luis Borges. Grayson states that the anarchist's bomb that killed Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg in 1881 led directly to the anti-Semitism that resulted in the migration of Russian Jews to the United States and thus to "the entrance of the noun 'chutzpah' into The Random House Dictionary of the English Language; Al Jolson's rendition of 'Mammy' in blackface; seven gold medals won by the United States Olympic swimming team at Munich in 1972; the Ziegfeld Follies; a certain kind of suburban vulgarity typified by the town of Woodmere, Long Island," and indirectly to Grayson's birth in the United States, his becoming a fiction writer, and finally to "the writing of this story, and ultimately to your reading of it." Grayson then suggests readers who have complaints about his work should address them to the anarchist whose bomb snuffed out the life of the czar, as the author would take no responsibility whatsoever for his fiction.
Other fragments of the story include a humorous account of a dinner at the home of the daughter of sportscaster Howard Cosell; a thumbnail biography of Theodore Roosevelt that manages to turn every detail of Roosevelt's biography into a detail from the writer's own life; and a final segment that apologizes for "the mess" Grayson has created in the story.
Other stories in Disjointed Fictions deal with concerns to which Grayson returned in later fiction. "Inside Barbara Walters" features "the famous TV personality" in a series of absurd adventures, each of them dealing with the difficulty of being a reader in a world where the visual image is king. "Progress" prefigures Grayson's later, more overtly gay-themed fiction in its depiction of a trio of loquacious, muddleheaded adolescents whose identities are conflated. "Escape from the Planet of the Humanoids" directly addresses the reader in a series of commands ("Look:"; "Listen:"; "Pay attention:"), ending with Grayson taking the manuscript of a story (presumably this one) to the photocopier, sending out multiple copies to little magazines, and promptly getting rejected.
With Hitler in New York and Other Stories was brought out by Taplinger, a commercial publisher in New York City. Grayson's editor, Wesley Strick, divided the collection into six sections: "Introduction," "Objects," "Families," "Women," "Subjects," and "Artifacts." The front jacket flap of the book presents the paragraph about the assassination of Czar Alexander II leading to "my writing of this book, and ultimately, to your reading of it."
In the title story a backpacking Adolf Hitler in blue jeans arrives in New York on Laker Airlines to spend time with his Jewish girlfriend. The story opens with the narrator waiting at Kennedy Airport with his friend Ellen for her boyfriend. Hitler, Ellen, and the narrator watch television, eat ice cream, and smoke a joint. The narrator admires Hitler's wit and grace, even when the dictator is jet-lagged and worn out by an oppressive New York heat wave.
As the story progresses, Hitler and his American friends eat at McDonald's, stroll in Greenwich Village, sip egg creams, and go to the Brighton Beach boardwalk, where a band of Russian Jews entertain themselves by singing Yiddish folk songs. Hitler listens intently, understands the slightly bawdy lyrics (unlike his American pals), and walks off before the old Jews recognize who he is.
The friendship between Hitler and the narrator, who is Jewish, deepens as they pass the dog days of summer. As an expression of his affection, Hitler gives the narrator a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems. The narrator's grandfather dies in Florida, but since the narrator does not want to dampen Hitler's going-away party, he tells no one about the death.
Hitler is a success at the party, holding his beer well and charming all the guests who have come to meet him. The narrator's admiration has by now turned to love. Drunk, the narrator and Hitler talk about winning Nobel Prizes-the narrator for literature and Hitler for peace. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator confides to Hitler that his grandfather has died. To stop the narrator from crying, Hitler tells funny stories, and the narrator drives Hitler home, feeling somewhat less mournful.
As Alvin H. Rosenfeld noted in his 1985 study Imagining Hitler, "Substitute almost anyone else for Hitler and the story would fail. With Hitler in it, though it is a fictional tour de force, it is the furthest extension to date of the neutralization of the historical Hitler and the normalization of a new image of the man." By removing Hitler's murderous anti-Semitism and imbuing him with positive qualities, Rosenfeld argued, "the story is designed to bring about an alignment of the reader's feelings with the narrator's," so that by the end of the story the reader hates to see Hitler go. Free of all references to World War II and the Holocaust, the story has de-Nazified Hitler and made him a friend of Jewish people. Rosenfeld noted that Grayson has removed Hitler from history and "made him safe. . . . There are no ironies here, weak or strong, only erasures so complete as to disarm the historical sense altogether."
Jack Saunders suggested in the Delray Beach News Journal that in portraying Hitler as a hail-fellow-well-met, Grayson was attempting to demonstrate Hannah Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil" in regard to the Nazis. In an interview in Gargoyle conducted by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody, Grayson said that one of his aims was to show just how much is lost when the name "Hitler" gives up its force and no longer evokes anything of consequence from the past.
In that respect at least, "With Hitler in New York" is about the power of a word, a name. Other pieces in the volume, such as a collection of not-all-that-bizarre personal ads, seem more authentic than funny, while a piece such as "Chief Justice Burger, Teen Idol," mixing the style of a teenage girl's fan magazine with the stiff judicial conservative, seems closer to pure satire out of Mad Magazine than fiction. On the other hand, by employing the style of trashy pop culture and capturing it so closely, Grayson manages to make its junkiness show. As with Donald Barthelme, Grayson has found new ways to recycle "the trash phenomena" of American culture.
The "Family" section features what Stuart Schoffman in the Los Angeles Times called Grayson's "parade of Jewish relatives." Some of the stories, such as "On the Boardwalk" or "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" are slice-of-life set pieces about eccentric grandparent---such as Great-Grandma Chaikah, who cannot understand why Jews never make strikes on the television show Bowling for Dollars. These stories are related from the point of view of a narrator who seems somewhere between thirteen and an unworldly twenty-one. In "Wednesday Night at Our House" Grayson employs a question-and-answer format to depict the dreary, immobilized lives of a Brooklyn family of five that presumably resembles his own tightly knit family of two parents and three male children.
In what several critics called the most reflexive piece in the volume, "But in a Thousand Other Worlds," the character Richard Grayson writes a story titled "But in a Thousand Other Worlds" that comes to life. A touchy creature on a low-cholesterol diet, the story is sent out first to slick magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic Monthly, getting summarily rejected ( The New Yorker compares it unfavorably to the work of Barthelme) and becoming more bitter. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (where Grayson held a scholarship in 1977), the novelist John Gardner, author of On Moral Fiction (1978), calls the story "immoral," whereupon it bites him on the leg, embarrassing the author, who flees back home to Brooklyn and sends the story out to "a little mag that pays in copies."
Returning with a coffee stain and its pages stapled together, "But in a Thousand Other Worlds" collapses. At Coney Island Hospital a doctor tells Richard that the story is unpublishable, that perhaps a major rewrite could have saved it once, but it is now too late. The character Richard cries at the death of his story while his friend Nina merely notes that the title always seemed unwieldy to her.
In a review titled "How Bad Are These Stories?" for the Minneapolis Tribune, D. G. Wnek suggested that this story epitomized Grayson's laziness and failure to lavish any care on his slapdash fictions. Agreeing, Kirkus Reviews suggested that Grayson's lack of patience and follow-through leads him to flounder once he has thought up an outrageous premise or a few jokes; not knowing what else to do, Grayson merely repeats his shticks, hoping for laughs of recognition.
Similarly, Page Edwards in Library Journal found the stories in With Hitler in New York and Other Stories "little more than cleverly linked scenes . . . quick, conscious attempts to dazzle." Many critics noted Grayson's willingness to take fictional risks but found that many of his stories deflated at their conclusions. James R. Frakes in The Plain Dealer found Grayson's Jewish family stories-"almost traditional, never sentimental"-his most effective pieces.
The mixed critical notices of With Hitler in New York and Other Stories also compared Grayson to a wide variety of writers and performers: Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Erma Bombeck, Fran Lebowitz, Steve Martin, Gilbert Sorrentino, Monty Python, Nathanael West, Franz Kafka, Bob Hope, William Saroyan, and the Marx Brothers.
Greil Marcus, in Rolling Stone, commented that the work was "where avant-garde fiction goes when it turns into stand-up comedy." Publishers Weekly treated the book as mostly humor, "poking fun at American life" with a "staccato style" in "sharp, witty stories." Kathleen Krog noted in the Hollywood (Florida) Sun-Tattler that unlike most metafictionists, Grayson has a persistent sentimental streak, shown in stories such as "Peninsular People," with its rather sweet collection of characters that anyone would like as neighbors. Daniel Curzon remarked in the San Francisco Voice on the persistent gay undercurrent running through With Hitler in New York and Other Stories and urged the young writer to write more explicitly on gay themes. Mark VanDine wrote in the Penn State Collegian that Grayson's stories seemed to be closer to plot outlines, introducing a situation and characters and having them interact to no great effect.
The book ends with a specious "Note on the Type," a parody of Knopf's end-of-the-volume notes, featuring spurious facts about real type fonts and the preferences of authors: "John Updike, an American author of Dutch descent, insists that all his novels be set in Janson. John Cheever's novels are set in Monticello, although he too prefers Janson. But Cheever is a reticent man and does not like to make an issue of it." We also learn what James M. Cain and Wallace Stevens have in common: "both are set in Electra." This hilarious send up should have alerted reviewers to Grayson's eagerness to puncture the balloon of American literary pretensions even if it meant playing the nebbish in order to do it.
The title of Grayson's third book, Lincoln's Doctor's Dog & Other Stories (1982), is based on an old publishing joke. Books about Lincoln always seemed to sell well; so did books about doctors and books about dogs. Thus, if an author were to write a book about Lincoln's doctor's dog, he would have a sure-fire best-seller. The title story is the account of a rather obnoxious middle-aged man who is attempting to write a story about Lincoln's doctor's dog. The absurd doings of the title character, a pup named Sparky who eventually becomes minister to Nicaragua and a successful nineteenth-century entrepreneur, are comic background and nearly irrelevant to the doings of the narrator, who watches soap operas to get ideas and watches teenage basketball players to get his sexual gratification. So clueless is the narrator as to what makes a story that after he has finished the putative "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog," he calls up editor Theodore Solotaroff, then an influential figure in the publishing world, only to get Mrs. Solotaroff, who clearly thinks she is dealing with a deranged man who informs her that her husband will publish his "masterpiece."
Other stories in the volume offer what seem to be representations of rather ordinary lives, through the author's typically skewed perspective. Grayson uses conjunctive adverbs (however, moreover, therefore) as titles of the sections of "Douglas, Apropos of Nothing," to describe moments in the hero's life. The sections in the Oedipal magic-realism story "Appearance House" are headed by three simple sentences, starting with one word (There) and ending with "There was a house. I was a boy there. I had to leave." And in the creepily unpleasant "The Second Person" Grayson employs you as the narrator. In "Why Van Johnson Believes in ESP" - its title apparently taken from a supermarket tabloid headline - Grayson uses second-rate Hollywood actors and other semicelebrities to comment on the longing and loneliness that lies behind the public's insatiable appetite for mass media.
Grayson moved to South Florida in 1981, but continued to live in New York for at least several months out of the year. In 1982 he published Eating at Arby's: The South Florida Stories as a result of a $3,000 Florida Arts Council fellowship in literature; on his application, Grayson had proposed to write a collection of stories about South Florida. The result was a chapbook of one- and two-page "stories" told in the repetitive, inane style of Dick and Jane reading primers.
Grayson's Dick and Jane are Manny and Zelda, a pair of apparently retired South Florida condo dwellers who are unutterably stupid about the world around them. Although they are retirees, Zelda has living grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa, who reside in Century Village, a well-known senior citizens' community, and "who drive each other crazy all day." Grayson presents a world of shopping malls offering meretricious consumer goods, refugees escaping Caribbean political and economic oppression (Manny mistakes a group of Haitian boat people for tourists lured by the attractions of Miami Beach), violent crime (Manny and Zelda's friend Jose, a Miami store owner, teaches them how to use a gun but in the last story becomes the fatality of a robbery), and drugs (after standing in a bank next to "boys who had just taken a trip to Colombia" and were "depositing a lot of money," Manny notes that he has heard many Floridians say they would like to make just one trip to Colombia and wonders "what there is to do in that place").
Grayson also looks at other early 1980s aspects of life in South Florida: hurricanes, race riots (their black chiropractor in the African American Liberty City neighborhood informs the couple that "some people felt they were treated unfairly"), ugly architecture, an automobile-centered society (missing an exit on I-95, Manny notes that careless elderly drivers and teenagers on Quaaludes are equally likely to cause car accidents), intellectual poverty (seeing a bookstore in the mall, Zelda says wistfully, "I read a book once"), and the presumably nonnutritious food at the Arby's restaurant where Zelda and Manny go out to eat.
Grayson also takes on such specific South Florida targets as the "condo commando," the long winter visits by unwanted relatives (Zelda gets a headache that lasts the entire stay of her sister-in-law, Norma), restaurant early-bird specials catering to senior citizens who steal rolls and condiments, and resentment toward bilingualism (Manny brags that he is bilingual because he can ask Jose "Como esta Usted?").
Eating at Arby's is an angry satire about a vacuous region, but the simplistic prose and the fact that even the most doltish South Florida resident can feel superior to Manny, Zelda, and their friends made the book quite popular with locals after Grayson publicized it in the media. The only objections came from the arts community and civic boosters. However, even the Florida Arts Council apparently recognized Grayson's contribution to the state of cultural affairs in Florida and awarded him two more Individual Artist Fellowship grants.
While an English professor at Broward Community College and a computer education instructor at Florida International University, Grayson began a series of what he called "publicity art" stunts, the purpose of which was to get media coverage for absurd or nonexistent events. Running for the town council in Davie, Florida, in 1982, Grayson garnered 26 percent of the vote while advocating giving horses the right to vote. (He pledged to vote "neigh" on every issue until that happened.)
As a candidate for president in 1984, Grayson got his photo in People, USA Today, and many newspapers because of his whimsical platform: advocating immediate nuclear war and the moving of the nation's capital to Davenport, Iowa; making El Salvador the fifty-first state; and asking Jane Wyman to run as his vice presidential candidate because of the actress's prior experience in "dumping Ronald Reagan."
In 1989 Business Week and the New York Post featured photos of Grayson in front of the New York Stock Exchange panhandling for $27 billion so that he could join in the bidding to take over the RJR Nabisco corporation. In recessionary 1990, Grayson appeared on the Cable News Network (CNN) twice: as the publisher of a magazine called Pauper, dedicated to glamorizing the poor, and then as head of the Save Donald Trump campaign, supposedly to rescue the billionaire real-estate developer from financial ruin.
To protest a Florida federal judge's ruling that a rap album by the group 2 Live Crew was obscene, Grayson began an organization called Radio Free Florida to send copies of the banned music from his summer home in Manhattan, where the record was freely available. Grayson also wrote a humor column for the Hollywood (Florida) Sun-Tattler.
I Brake for Delmore Schwartz: Stories (1983), Grayson's most popular book, includes some of his most skillful tours de force. "Y/Me" is a meditation on the letter Y and its place in history and the narrator's life: "In junior high I learned to swim at the YMCA. I did quadratic equations, solving for X and for Y. Y. A. Tittle gave me his autograph. I got stung by a yellowjacket. In Spanish we read Platero y Yo. Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth." The story ends with an exhortation to the reader to "worship Y; pray to it; make your body into a Y and give thanks for this remarkable letter." The energy and inventiveness of Grayson's language makes "Y/Me" one of his best fictions.
"The Autobiography of William Henry Harrison's Cold" takes the point of view of the cold virus that ended the life and the one-month administration of the nineteenth-century president who caught a chill after giving a "dull, pompous" inaugural address lasting for hours on a frigid day in Washington. The cold denies that he was part of a plot by Harrison's enemies or his vice president, John Tyler, and believes he did the country a service "in taking the life of a man so ill-equipped for leadership."
"Nice Weather, Aren't We?" - the title phrase a seemingly nonsensical but comprehensible bit of small talk by a stranger in an elevator-shows the narrator, an M.F.A. student, struggling to write a story that will outdo those of his graduate workshop rival, Bruce. But during the course of the "story," Bruce comes in and discovers that the narrator has used him as an unsavory character. Enraged, Bruce punches the narrator, who wonders how he will finish the story while in pain from a black eye. Almost immediately, however, the narrator announces he has made up the assault by Bruce and the story will go on-somehow. After recounting his dismay over rejections of his work and the lies he tells, not only on the page but to friends, the narrator explains that he writes only because he is so unhappy and urges the reader not to judge him: "All I do really is manipulate reality. Is that so bad? I don't know how else to live? End of story."
Only the title story in I Brake for Delmore Schwartz, as Ivan Gold noted in The New York Times Book Review, "threatens to become a well-made story." The narrator - a young writer, part-time cab driver, and adjunct college instructor living in a Brooklyn apartment with bars on his windows-has to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend, Alix, has left him for his best friend, Tom, a struggling painter. He also must decide whether to join Tom in giving up his dreams of an artistic career in favor of going to New York University to learn computer programming. The narrator identifies with the poet Delmore Schwartz, whom he resembles both physically and in his incipient paranoia, and has made up the bumper sticker of the title to put on his car. Although neighborhood vandals have ripped it so that the slogan is now unreadable, it conveys the narrator's desire not to hurt anyone like the mad, disheveled poet who ended his days wandering the streets of New York in a stupor. Ultimately the narrator decides to "call up Tom and leave a message on his machine," and the book ends with a renunciation of the writing life that Grayson himself contemplated many times without truly going through with it.
The Greatest Short Story that Absolutely Ever Was (1989) features a title piece in which Grayson again mocks both the blockbuster ethos of the 1980s book publishing business and the inconsequential nature of his own fictional efforts, largely published in obscure literary magazines or small-press books. The story is a compilation of gossip column items à la Larry King or Liz Smith, each ending with the requisite ellipses. These items concern Richard Grayson, an "ultra-talented" "super-writer," who, it is rumored, is at work on "another one of his short-story masterpieces." Breathlessly, the gossip columnist reveals details of the plot ("based on his own adventures on the psychiatrist's couch and in graduate school"), the secrecy surrounding work on the story (the author's eighty-two-year-old grandmother was said to be interviewing "all the candidates for the honor of typist . . . in the back booth of the Bagel Whole Restaurant in Plantation, Florida"), and a possible movie deal involving superstar actors (Tom Cruise reportedly gets down on his hands and knees to grovel before Grayson, who demands that the actor "put on fifty pounds and a dirty blond wig and glasses to play the main character, said to be based on Richie himself"). After pages of this hype-filled buildup, the author/character angrily denies to USA Today that "his much ballyhooed masterpiece doesn't even exist," but finally the "dynamic young superwriter who's shaken up America with his fantastic innovations in short fiction" announces at a closed-circuit press conference that he is abandoning his story but will begin a new story, "an experimental piece about all the furor writing the first story caused."
As the always-limited public taste for the metafictional experiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s faded, Grayson seemed to have a clear-eyed view that his work would be ignored, but instead of retreating into bitter grousing, the author preferred to look at the absurdity of what the last sentence of the story calls "the public's resistance to fiction that they can't understand."
By titling another work in the volume "There Are Eight Million Stories in New York; This Is One of the Stupidest," Grayson again engages in self-deprecating criticism while continuing to subvert the short-story form. Seemingly improvising like one of the toomlers in a Borscht Belt hotel (at one time Grayson's parents owned a hotel in the Catskills), the author maniacally grabs onto anything that might get his audience to guffaw or at least to pay attention. In the end readers find that the "author" has died and somewhere in the middle a new "author" has had to come in and finish the job, racing haphazardly in and out of the minds of characters, one of whom says, "So what kind of story is this that began so unpromisingly and has degenerated further into pure gibberish?" The second author finally runs out of energy and exhorts readers to stop reading the story.
Other stories in The Greatest Short Story that Absolutely Ever Was similarly deconstruct themselves. "Myself Redux" mixes supposed autobiography and warped history around a final complex pun on the phrase "it's just a story." And "This Way to the Egress" ends with the narrator's apologies for the piece: "I just call it a story because I don't know what else to call it. It's just some things I'm writing down on a rainy night."
Grayson's next chapbook, Narcissism and Me (1989), presents the author in a similar mode. All of the stories are comic satires or parodies featuring relentless wordplay, authorial asides, solipsistic narrators who invite deliberate confusion with the author, false confessions (often of an embarrassing nature), and corny jokes.
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp" is a look at New York City at the height of the Yuppified Reagan years. The story opens with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, a large, cigar-smoking man who clearly is former chairman Paul Volcker, unsuccessfully trying to get a cash advance at an automatic teller machine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Unable to get his money, the Fed Chairman refuses to leave the lobby of the Chase Manhattan Bank, causing a fiscal crisis and a major story for the news media.
This media event allows Grayson to satirize the junk journalism practiced by the tabloids and network news, the financial machinations of Wall Street (another major crisis occurs when, because of a typo, a Wall Street Journal columnist touts "punk bands" instead of "junk bonds"), soaring real-estate prices, the commodification of everything, government bureaucracy, and the impersonalization and dissociation caused by technological devices such as the videocassette recorder and the ATM. On MTV, Xerox Sankabrand, lead singer of The Vomit Seekers, croons: "I pay my Visa bill with my MasterCard / So what's the commotion? / Money's just information in motion."
Grayson's story comments on the waning importance of the physical foundations of society in favor of intangible assets such as knowledge, organizational structures, and intellectual property. The Controller of the Currency lectures the Korean ambassador, a transvestite who shops at Benetton, under the misapprehension that the man is the ambassador from Japan. At the end of the story, a physical manifestation triumphs as the Fed Chairman's elderly mother floats out of her window at Trump Tower over to the Citicorp building, on whose sloping roof she bestows a holy kiss. Seeing his mother, the Fed Chairman, beaten by the recalcitrant ATM machine, experiences an epiphany of relief: "It's the float, he thinks. It's the float," a reference to the "float" time between the deposit of a check and when it clears, and an acknowledgment that in an information society, the "float" is a throwback to a simpler world where real space and distance were crucial.
The postscript of the story states that the malfunctioning ATM has been replaced by a newer model with a computer-generated voice, and the Fed Chairman has been replaced by the punk rocker Xerox Sankabrand, who tells the nation, "The business of America is show business."
"Innovations" satirizes the metafictionists themselves, as a hapless M.F.A. student writes a story about D.L., his creative writing professor and mentor, who is constantly humiliated publicly by senior citizens and welfare recipients when he tells them he is "an innovative fiction writer." Noting that creative-writing workshops could not take place without the use of the word "resonant," the narrator tries to please D.L. by writing a story called "Resonance," only to have the professor reject it as lacking in the title quality. Grayson's satire is directed toward his own metafiction in parenthetical asides to the reader, such as "Somehow these days most of my stories seem to be the fictional equivalents of all those recordings of 'I've Got to Be Me'" and "Look, this story might not be very interesting to read, but then, is your own life really much more interesting? So don't blame me. Blame D.L. if you must blame someone. Because I said so, that's why." In the end the author/narrator places his creative-writing professor in 1950s Miami Beach "with its uninhibited monuments to lavish and pretentious ignorance," feeling no triumph that D.L. will never write an innovative story again-because "neither will I. But then I never got the hang of it anyway."
The title story of Narcissism and Me begins: "I am reading a story by Richard Grayson. I am reading the first line of the story. The first line is, 'I am reading a story by Richard Grayson.'" The story gets increasingly self-reflexive and recursive, with detours discussing "Richard's" therapist, Dr. Gentile, and his Uncle Moe, as well as Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism (1978) and Norman Podhoretz's Making It (1967) - until finally the story self-destructs: "You can't read any more of this story because it is over. Grayson's a bore. . . . and the rest of us - you, me, Uncle Moe, Dr. Gentile, Christopher Lasch - are tired of this sort of self-indulgence masquerading as art."
In 1991, frustrated by the literary scene - fewer publishing outlets in a time of deep cuts in arts funding and a sense of futility, given his small audience - and spurred by his experiences attending a series of obscenity trials involving 2 Live Crew, Grayson entered the University of Florida College of Law in Gainesville. After graduating with high honors and various academic awards, Grayson joined the faculty as a staff attorney in social policy at the law school think tank, the Center for Governmental Responsibility. Drawing on his earlier interests in computer education, Grayson produced two volumes of legal memoranda on issues involving the use of computers in education for the state of Florida. He worked on projects involving public interest law, intellectual property, affirmative action, the environment, and biotechnology; he also began to publish serious op-ed pieces on various issues and emerged as a local gay-rights activist. However, he also renewed his interest in writing fiction, though he viewed himself primarily as a "hobbyist."
New stories led to another book-length collection in 1996. I Survived Caracas Traffic bears the subtitle Stories from the Me Decades and features pieces set in the mid 1970s to late 1980s. Grayson is presented in both his satiric, experimental mode and his more representational stories.
The whimsical "Twelve Step Barbie" takes the world's most popular doll through a midlife crisis. Barbie, no longer young, is a recovering alcoholic and wracked with pain from an autoimmune disease she believes she acquired from breast implants - Grayson's explanation for her oft-discussed improbable proportions. Now fortyish and weather-beaten, Barbie goes to the bank for a loan for her asbestos-removal business and is no longer surprised that the handsome young loan officer does not give her a second glance.
Barbie's glamour has been replaced by the wisdom that comes with age and its inevitable disappointments. A plaintiff in a class-action suit against the breast implant manufacturer, Barbie is reunited with her former boyfriend Ken, who is now Kendra, having undergone a sex-change operation (though it is noted that even as a male, Ken had been lacking a penis) and also having been made ill by breast implants. The story ends on a sweet note, as the pair recall their past and contemplate their future friendship.
In "The Man Who Gave Away Millions" Grayson narrates a story based on a news event from the late 1960s in which a young hippie manipulated the media into thinking he had inherited a fortune and was planning to give it all away to people in need. The drugged-out protagonist, Sam Jellicoe, is a total phony, yet he manages to hoodwink both the needy and the greedy, as well as Ed Sullivan, who has Jellicoe perform a guitar solo on his television show. The story illustrates Grayson's concern with the media-driven infatuation with celebrity and its unhealthy effects as civic life is replaced by a insidiously seductive pop culture based on the commodification of everything.
Other stories find Grayson in familiar territory, portraying the isolating entropy of depression among baby boomers unwilling to grow up in "Where the Glacier Stops" and "My Plan to Kill Henry Kissinger." Satirical, bizarre stories with labored jokes and puns are also included, as in "A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama." In "A Clumsy Story" Grayson artfully diagrams and parodies M.F.A. workshop fiction.
After returning to fiction writing as a resident at artists' colonies in Illinois, California, and Wyoming, Grayson went back to South Florida in 1998. Grayson's more-recent fiction has not received consistently favorable reviews. Jaimy Gordon said in American Book Review, "Grayson is not a graceful stylist, and as soon as the expression of a personality (or the illusion of this) disappears from them, his inventions and satires move on leaden feet."
Grayson's later work, having shed the cloak of reflexivity and satire, is more realistic but paradoxically less real. The world is not rendered but reported. In his earlier fiction the lack of sensory content becomes part of the linguistic texture of the work; in his recent, more realistic fiction it reveals limits to Grayson's prose style.
Grayson's stories in The Silicon Valley Diet and Other Stories (2000) deal with gay relationships in the 1990s against the backdrop of a culture defined by cyberspace, mass media, a consumer-driven society, immigration, and racial conflicts. Though these stories utilize many of Grayson's techniques, such as loose associations around a central motif- frequently the computer world or food-they are nonetheless more straightforward. Overall, the book received good reviews. Publishers Weekly (15 May 2000) called the stories "compulsively talky and engagingly disjunctive flash snapshots of gay men in their twenties, thirties and forties . . . and lighter and funnier than much gay fiction." Pat MacEnulty, in her review for The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (28 May 2000), found Grayson's "italicized passages that serve as a counterpoint to the narrative . . . superfluous," yet praised the stories overall as "funny, intelligently written and original" and declared that the stories of gay relationships "serve up slices of life as we know it right here and now with hate crimes, weight worries and easy money for Internet whizzes."
Certainly Grayson is a marginal figure in contemporary American fiction, and he and his fictional persona seem quite aware of this fact. But by obsessively focusing his lens on the life of one "Richard Grayson," Richard Grayson reveals more about American society and the role of the writer within it than do some better-known or "polished" authors. Taken as a body of work, Grayson's short fiction ultimately appears to be one ongoing, career-long writing project, focused always on the effects of contemporary culture on the self.
– Tom Whalen, Tulane University