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Early rah-rah reviews for Anthropology, the tragicomic debut novel from 28-year-old Kent, England, humorist Dan Rhodes, have likened the sly scribe to such offbeat heavyweight wordsmiths as Richard Brautigan, Hal Sirowitz, and, for the greatest jacket-blurb stretch, Nietzsche. But as far as I’m concerned, Rhodes bows to one influence and one influence only: Jack Handey. You never saw Handey’s face on Saturday Night Live, but in the early ’90s, his “Deep Thoughts”—short passages that slowly scrolled over cheesy pastoral snapshots—provided the only true joy the deteriorating show could muster. Handey issued Hallmark sentiment from hell: a vicious blend of Beckettesque absurdism, banal observation, and razor-edge mean streak, all voiced by an earnest narrator with a self-help lilt. Not everyone got the joke, but those who did (and all the pot smokers) were hooked. A couple of Handey classics:

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. “Oh, no,” I said. “Disneyland burned down.” He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late.

To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.

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OK, so maybe I’ve lost a few of you already, and if I have, that’s just as well. Because whereas Handey was in it only for the uncomfortable laugh, newbie Rhodes goes one step further, burying his brutally funny punch lines in ghoulish, supernatural—but heartbreaking all the same—observations on modern love. Anthropology is made up of 101 breakup stories—each one exactly 101 words long, a strange hybrid of short story, sonnet, and seltzer bottle. The book can be (and, if you’re into this sort of thing, should be) read straight through in an hour’s time. For me, the result of turning the final page was a flip back to the first—and a reassuring call to my current paramour.

As adept a writer as he is a joke teller, Rhodes crafts smooth, seductive bursts of prose—solid chunks of Raymond Carver matter-of-factness—and only seldom does his word limit cause him to stumble. And there is some message-coded structure here besides setup, joke, setup, joke. While new girlfriends—with would-be X-Men names like Nightjar, Tortoiseshell, and Xanthe—step in, then out, of his life, the narrator, echoing in the reader’s head like Carlton, Your Doorman, remains the same. A whiny, almost unbearable nebbish, our lovelorn antihero is insecure, shallow, and impotent—all to the nth degree. He is unable to function without a woman in his life—preferably a very attractive woman with lots of bitter ex-boyfriends groveling in her front yard. In order to get a date, he believes wholeheartedly in female empowerment and male submission. He is, actually, like quite a few of your friends.

In Rhodes’ opinion, men overlook the laws of sanity and common decency—all out of fear of sleeping alone. In several stories here, the pitiful protagonist marches a new girlfriend through town—or takes her door to door in his neighborhood— just to legitimize her reality (and his shaky prowess) by displaying her before others.

My girlfriend is so pretty that I can’t get over it. Every week I celebrate the alignment of her features by parading a giant photograph of her lovely face around the town center. I’ve written the words “pretty face” on the picture’s border, and drawn an arrow to direct people’s attention toward it. It’s not bragging, because it’s her that’s the pretty one, not me. I’m going to parade every week for as long as she lets me be her boyfriend, and probably even longer. Nothing’s going to put me off, not even shouts of “Had her” or “Been there.”

Behind closed doors, however, he’s not nearly so confident. In “Horse,” the narrator ignores the fact that his grown-up girlfriend has an “imaginary horse” because she “looks so incredible in jodhpurs and with her hair up in a net.” In “Drinking,” he finds “six empty three-liter bottles of White Lightning cider. %7.5” in his recovering-alcoholic girlfriend’s flat; he believes her, though, when she claims, “I used it as make-up remover.”

Rhodes sprinkles a few clunkers throughout Anthropology—stories in which he borrows a tired Henny

Youngman riff or relies on a throwaway joke from the Truly Tasteless collection—but for the most part, the author’s approach is irresistible. Take “Knife,” for example:

I gave Lola a knife to use in the kitchen. Instead she had a lump of oak delivered, and began to carve. For days I couldn’t work out what it would be, and she wouldn’t tell me. She barely spoke, so intent was she on the task. It took shape. It was a man: taller, more handsome, and far better endowed than me. She tells me she still loves me and that she knows he isn’t real, but sometimes, as her long nails scratch my back and her white teeth gnaw my body, I swear I can hear her whisper, “Woody.”

Funny? Dumb? Both? OK, try “Shipwreck”:

After the shipwreck I was devastated and cried for weeks. When I emerged from my grief, I realized that my girlfriend’s death shouldn’t be the end of me. I found someone as pretty and nice as her and eventually I invited her on a beach holiday. My old girlfriend was washed up on the shore. She’d been clinging to a plank for fourteen months, living on raw fish, rainwater and her love for me. I was faced with a choice. My new girl won because the old one was skinny and bedraggled, and besides, the water had made her all crinkly.

Only in Anthropology’s final story, “Words,” does Rhodes come up with the lone conceivable way for love to prosper. His solution, of course, is as bleak and hopeless and funny as the preceding 100 installments. I don’t think it’s ruining anything by giving up the ending—Anthropology is the sum of its delicious parts, paying little mind to the standard chronology of story arc—but if you want to discover his bitter scheme for yourself, stop reading now:

I fell in love the moment I saw her in her grandfather’s kitchen, her dark curls crashing over her Portuguese shoulders. “Would you like to drink coffee?” she smiled.

“I’m really not that thirsty.”

“What? What you say?” Her English wasn’t too good. Now I’m seventy-three and she’s just turned seventy. “Would you like to drink coffee?” she asked me today, smiling.

“I’m really not that thirsty.”

“What? What you say?” Neither of us has the gift of language acquisition. After fifty years of marriage we have never really spoken, but we love each other more than words can say. CP