Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Letham


Rating: (Recommended)




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There are nine short stories in Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection, Men and Cartoons, and the longest one, “Super Goat Man,” is worth buying the book to read. That story captures Lethem’s wit, irony, gloominess, creativity, and struggle with growing up. The desire for secret powers can disappear when those powers arrive, as depicted in this excerpt, all of the story titled, “The Spray,” pp. 47-55:



The apartment was burgled and the police came. Four of them and a dog. The three youngest were like boys. They wore buzzing squawking radios on their belts. The oldest was in charge and the young ones did what he told them. The dog sat. They asked what was taken and we said we weren’t sure—the television and the fax machine, at least. One of them was writing, taking down what we said. He had a tic, an eye that kept blink­ing. “What else?” the oldest policeman said. We didn’t know what else. That’s when they brought it out, a small unmarked canister, and began spraying around the house. First they put a mask over the mouth and nose of the dog. None of them wore a mask. They didn’t offer us any pro­tection. Just the dog. “Stand back,” they said. They sprayed in a circle toward the edges of the room. We stood clustered with the policemen. “What’s that?” we said. “Spray,” said the oldest policeman. “Makes lost things visible.”

The spray settled like a small rain through the house and afterward glowing in various spots were the things the burglar had taken. It was a salmon-colored glow. On the table was a salmon-colored image of a box, a jewelry box that Addie’s mother had given us. There was a salmon-colored glowing television and fax machine in place of the missing ones. On the shelves the spray showed a Walkman and a camera and a pair of cuff links, salmon-colored and luminous. In the bedroom was Addie’s vibrator, glowing like a fuel rod. We all walked around the apartment, look­ing for things. The eye-tic policeman wrote down the names of the items that appeared. Addie called the vibra­tor a massager. The dog in the mask, eyes watering. I couldn’t smell the spray. “How long does it last?” we said.

“About a day,” said the policeman who’d done the spraying, not the oldest. “You know you c-can’t use this stuff anymore, even though you c-can see it,” he said. “It’s gone.”

“Try and touch it,” said the oldest policeman. He pointed at the glowing jewelry box.

We did and it wasn’t there. Our hands passed through the visible missing objects.

They asked us about our neighbors. We told them we trusted everyone in the building. They looked at the fire es­cape. The dog sneezed. They took some pictures. The bur­glars had come through the window. Addie put a book on the bedside table on top of the glowing vibrator. It showed through, like it was projected onto the book. We asked if they wanted to dust for fingerprints. The older policeman shook his head. “They wore gloves,” he said. “How do you know?” we said. “Rubber gloves leave residue, powder,” he said. “That’s what makes the dog sneeze.” “Oh.” They took more pictures. “Did you want something to drink?” The older one said no. One of the younger policemen said, “I’m allergic, just like the d-dog,” and the other policemen laughed. Addie had a drink, a martini. The policemen shook our hands and then they went away. We’d been given a case number. The box and the cuff links and the rest still glowed. Then Addie saw that the policemen had left the spray.

She took the canister and said, “There was something wrong with those policemen.”

“Do you mean how young they seemed?”

“No, I think they always look young. You just don’t no­tice on the street. Outdoors you see the uniforms, but in the house you can see how they’re just barely old enough to vote.”

“What are you going to do with that?” I said.

She handled it. “Nothing. Didn’t you think there was something strange about those policemen, though?”

“Do you mean the one with the lisp?”

“He didn’t have a lisp, he had a twitchy eye.”

“Well, there was one with an eye thing, but the one who stuttered—is that what you mean by strange?” Addie kept turning the canister over in her hands. “Why don’t you let me take that,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I guess I don’t know what I mean. Just something about them. Maybe there were too many of them. Do you think they develop the pictures themselves, Aaron? Do they have a darkroom in the police station?”

I said, “Probably.” She said, “Do you think the missing things show up in the photographs—the things the spray reveals?”


“Let’s just keep it and see if they come back.”

“I wish you would put it on the table, then.”

“Let’s find a place to hide it.”

“They’re probably doing some kind of inventory right now, at the police station. They’ll probably be back for it any minute.”

“So if we hide it—”

“If we hide it we look guiltier than if you just put it on the table.”

“We didn’t steal anything. Our house was broken into. They left it here.”

“I wish you would put it on the table.”

“I wonder if the police do their inventory by spraying around the police station to see what’s missing?

“So if we have their spray—”

“They’ll never know what happened!” She shrieked with laughter. I laughed too. I moved next to her on the couch and we rolled and laughed like monkeys in a zoo. Still laughing, I put my hand on the spray canister. “Gimme,” I said.

“Let go.” Her laughter faded as she pulled at the can. The ends of several hairs were stuck to her tongue. I pulled on the can. And she pulled. We both pulled harder.

Gimme,” I said. I let go of the can and tickled her. “Gimme gimme gimme.”

She grimaced and twisted away from me. “Not funny,” she said.

“The police don’t have their SPRAY!” I said, and kept tickling her.

“Not funny not funny.” Slapping my hands away, she stood up.

“Okay. You’re right, it’s not funny. Put it on the table.”

“Let’s return it like you said.”

“I’m too tired. Let’s just hide it. We can return it to­morrow.”

“Okay, I’ll hide it. Cover your eyes.”

“Not hide-and-seek. We have to agree on a place. A locked place.”

“What’s the big deal? Let’s just leave it on the table.” She put it on the table, beside the salmon-colored glowing box. “Maybe somebody will break in and take it. Maybe the police will break in.”

“You’re a little mixed up, I’d say.” I moved closer to the table.

“I’m just tired.” She pretended to yawn. “What a day.”

“I don’t miss the stuff that was taken,” I said.

“You don’t?”

“I hate television and faxes. I hate this little jewelry box.”

“See if you’re still saying that tomorrow, when you can’t see them anymore.”

“I only care about you, you, you.” I grabbed the canis­ter of spray. She grabbed it too. “Let go,” she said.

“You’re all I love, you’re all that matters to me,” I said.

We wrestled for the can again. We fell onto the couch together.

“Let’s just put it down on the table,” said Addie. “Okay.” “Let go.” “You first.” “No, at the same time.” We put it on the table.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking,” she said.

“I don’t know, probably.”

“What are you thinking?”

“What you’re thinking.”

“I’m not thinking anything.”

“Then I’m not either.”



“It probably doesn’t work that way,” I said. “The police wouldn’t have a thing like that. It isn’t the same thing.”

“So why not try.”



“You said it wouldn’t work.”

“Just don’t. It’s toxic. You saw them cover the dog’s mouth.”

“They didn’t cover themselves. Anyway, I asked them about that when you were in the other room. They said it

was so you wouldn’t see the stuff the dog ate that fell out of its mouth. Because the dog is a very sloppy eater. So the spray would show what it had been eating recently, around the mouth. It’s disgusting, they said.”

“Now you’re the liar.”

“Let’s just see.”

I jumped up. “If you spray me I’ll spray you,” I shouted. The spray hit me as I moved across the room. The wet mist fell behind me, like a parachute collapsing in the spot where I’d been, but enough got on me. An image of Lu­cinda formed, glowing and salmon-colored.

Lucinda was naked. Her hair was short, like when we were together. Her head lay on my shoulder, her arms were around my neck, and her body was across my front. My shirt and jacket. Her breasts were mashed against me, but I couldn’t feel them. Her knee was across my legs. I jumped backward but she came with me, radiant and in­substantial. I turned my head to see her face. Her expres­sion was peaceful, but her little salmon-colored eyelids were half open.

“Ha!” said Addie. “I told you it would work.”

“GIVE ME THAT!” I lunged for the spray. Addie ducked. I grabbed her arm and pulled her with me onto the couch. Me and Addie and Lucinda were all there to­gether, Lucinda placidly naked. As Addie and I wrestled for the spray we plunged through Lucinda’s glowing body, her luminous arms and legs.

I got my hands on the spray canister. We both had our hands on it. Four hands covering the one can. Then it went off. One of us pressed the nozzle, I don’t know who. It wasn’t Lucinda, anyway.

As the spray settled over us Charles became visible, poised over Addie. He was naked, like Lucinda. His glow­ing shoulders and legs and ass were covered with glowing salmon hair, like the halo around a lightbulb. His mouth was open. His face was blurred, like he was a picture someone had taken while he was moving his face, saying something.

“There you go,” I said. “You got what you wanted.” “I didn’t want anything,” said Addie.

We put the spray on the table.

“How long did the police say it would last?” I said. I tried not to look at Lucinda. She was right beside my head.

“About twenty-four hours. What time is it?”

“It’s late. I’m tired. The police didn’t say twenty-four hours. About a day, they said.”

“That’s twenty-four hours.”

“Probably they meant it’s gone the next day.”

“I don’t think so.”

I looked at the television. I looked at the cuff links. I looked at Charles’s ass. “Probably the sunlight makes it wear off,” I said.


“Probably you can’t see it in the dark, in complete dark­ness. Let’s go to bed.”

We went into the bedroom. All four of us. I took off my shoes and socks. “Probably it’s just attached to our clothes. If I take off my clothes and leave them in the other room—”

“Try it.”

I took off my pants and jacket. Lucinda was attached to me, not the clothes. Her bare salmon knee was across my bare legs. I started to take off my shirt. Addie looked at me. Lucinda’s face was on my bare shoulder.

“Put your clothes back on,” said Addie.

I put them back on. Addie left her clothes on. We lay on top of the covers in our clothes. Lucinda and Charles were on top of us. I didn’t know where to put my hands. I won­dered how Addie felt about Charles’s blurred face, his open mouth. I was glad Lucinda wasn’t blurred. “Turn off the light,” I said. “We won’t be able to see them in the dark.”

Addie turned off the light. The room was dark. Charles and Lucinda glowed salmon above us. Glowing in the blackness with the vibrator on the side table and the lumi­nous dial of my watch.

“Just close your eyes,” I said to Addie.

“You close yours first,” she said.


I think Lethem is at his best in his short fiction, and Men and Cartoons provides a fine sampling of the range of his talent.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2005 issue of Executive Times


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