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Weekly Alibi Slaughter of the Innocence

Robert Bingham's 'Pure Slaughter Value'

By Brendan Doherty

AUGUST 10, 1998:  A collection of short stories can rush the damn air out of your lungs like a train rushing by just a few feet away. Tiny scenes of the train cars whiz by, then scenes of the world beyond, then the blurry insides of the train. At least good collections of short stories can be that way. Robert Bingham's collection, Pure Slaughter Value, is the train of a book that whizzes through one's life, carting anyone who touches it into a short frenzy to read and end each story.

Like Bingham himself, his characters are wised up. Think of social, fiduciary and erotic affiliations between the children of John Cheever's characters and Robert Stone's. Think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan's offspring, but with more than two wits to rub together. Whether or not such people can have any moral value is answered by Bingham's drug-and-booze-fuzzed (but somehow agonizingly alert) protagonists. They are amoral. The narrators of the first-person tales are ferally unforgiving of themselves, feeling corruptions surging through their privileged genes like time-bombs. Take some fascinatingly unlikable characters, mash them up with chillingly despicable ones, incorporate them in surprising and funny stories, and you've got Pure Slaughter Value. Then try to comfort yourself that you're not in this book and that no more than 50 percent of the people you know are in here, either.

Bingham's masterfully crafted portraits of the American ruling class are at once intimate and coruscating. A spy in the dorm rooms, hotel rooms and back rooms of privilege, he stalks where hacks have rushed in before him, bringing back stories we have never quite heard before--ones that are difficult to forget.

The author's sense of morbid fancy is grounded with a gutsy realism: A young man is seduced by his first cousin (perhaps the other way around) at her brother's wake; a bored couple plots to kill a man during their ski-resort honeymoon; a yuppie banker risks his whole perfect life for an affair with a junkie; an insurance company bounty hunter tracks down walkaways from drug and alcohol rehab, and in the title story, an 11-year-old boy is caught at the uneasy intersection of the safety of childhood play and the pain of grown-up love and longing.

These potent stories are sharp, lean and wicked.

Bingham is an editor for the literary chapbook, Open City. His former writing assignments have been for The New York Times about Cambodia and for the Phnom Penh-based Cambodia Daily. His stories, however, visit the desperate moral ground that is urban and suburban America. They are about people as daggers, disconsolate and unforgiving, soulless wanderers that collide with each other. Indeed, they are stories about the here and now that make your heart pound and the pages fly in the hope that you will not find yourself the subject. (Anchor Books, paper, $11)

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