- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

This collection of pieces by Woody Allen, 10 originally published in the New Yorker along with eight new works, takes a few pages to engage. One can’t help but worry that we’ve seen all this virtuoso word play and all these deconstructed neuroses before. Which of course is true. The new “Mere Anarchy” is preceded by the classics “Getting Even”(1970) “Without Feathers” (1975) and “Side Effects” (1980), and they all undeniably share a blend of angst and anecdote, Allen-style. So the question is: Does the winning formula of yore still hold water?


If you get to page three.

Which is where readers encounter a New Age concoction of levitation and translocation in which a narrator holds forth about the potential for “perceiving the higher dimensions”:

“I bring all this up because coincidentally, later that same day I was emerging from Hammacher Schlemmer, laid waste by obsessive indecision over whether to buy a computerized duck press or the world’s finest portable guillotine, when I bumped like the Titanic into an old iceberg I had known in college, Max Endorphine. Plump in midlife, with the eyes of a cod and sporting a toupee upholstered with sufficient pile to create a trompe l’oeil pompadour, he pumped my hand and launched into tales of his recent good fortune.”

Clearly, time has not discouraged Mr. Allen from inserting himself into the worlds he fashions for a reader’s amusement. And the template is familiar. In the pieces contained here — all shorter than short stories, longer than stand-up routines — we find over and over again, startling flights of fancy populated by outrageous characters.

With funny names.

Jasper Nutmeat, Flanders Mealworm and an independent film mogul E. Coli Biggs to name a few. Not to mention Reg Millipede or Holy Moe Bottomfeeder, the Prayer Jockey.

Plots are incidental.

Even the characters are incidental.

What readers find are little nuggets of observations about a multitude of quotidian fixations and contradictions. So whether it’s New Age foolishness, moviemaking egos, postmodern fabrics that give off good scents such as freshly baked roles or the usual Allen landscape of art, sex, crime, philosophy, Freud and music, all charms. All delights.

In a piece called “Attention Geniuses: Cash Only,” the narrator (who sounds exactly like you-know-who) imagines himself into the role of one Doctor Gachet, “a physician who treated the likes of Pisarro and van Gogh when these lads were under the weather after ingesting an unripe frog’s leg or belting back too much absinthe.”

Except that his name is Dr. Skeezix Feebleman.

Dr. Feebleman can’t believe his good fortune when his friend Untermensch refers a patient to him named Murray Pepkin, an aspiring songwriter. Untermensch tells Feebleman that “[h]e’s Jerry Kern or Cole porter, but modern-day. Problem is, the kid’s awashed in debilitating guilt.”

But there are even more problems. Feebleman writes:

“May 2nd. It has been six months today that I have been treating Murray Pepkin, and though my faith in his genius abides undiminished, I must say I did not realize the amount of work involved. Last week he rang me at 3 a.m. to tell me a long dream in which Rodgers and Hart appeared at his window as parrots and simonized his car. Some days later he paged me at the opera and threatened to take his life if I did not immediately drive to meet him at Umberto’s Clam House and hear his idea for a musical based on the Dewey decimal system. I put up with it out of deference to his gifts, which I alone seem to recognize …”

Pepkin’s best work? “A torch song called ‘Italics Mine,’ which boasted the magnificent lyric ‘You’re fine, like red wine, I love you (italics mine).’”

I will not spoil the ending by revealing what became of the Feebleman-Pepkin association except to say that it does not disappoint.

Mr. Allen’s range is vast, and while the material does not feel new (and I’m not talking about the material that, as discussed earlier is not new), it does feel durable. There is, and there will likely always be something endearing about a person who makes himself smaller than the odd and vexing world around him.

Take string theory.

A piece toward the end of the collection called “Strung Out,” begins “I am greatly relieved that the universe is finally explainable. I was beginning to think it was me.”

In the end, one comes away from this slender volume grateful for the time spent. There is much to be said for a book in which the Three Stooges, Socrates, Mickey Mouse, Alma Mahler and Friedrich Nietzsche are granted equal access to our attention and are given over with casual abandon to Mr. Allen’s loopy situations. Lots of belly laughs. Great fun.

What? This is too shtick-affirming for you?

Then let me close this review as Mr. Allen closed his book:

“In case you’re wondering where this little homicide tale goes, keep watching the back pages for news out of Albany, where the legislature will be taking up the bill that will lead to Pinchuck’s Law, which makes it a felony for any dentist to endanger the life of a patient by relentless conversation or by saying anything other than ‘Open wide’ or ‘Please rinse’ without a prior court order.”


By Woody Allen

Random House, $21.95, 161 pages

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