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After 1995’s Madeleine’s Ghost rocketed his name to the top of the young-hot-shit list, D.C. scribe Robert Girardi and his burgeoning fiction career took some unexpected hits: His beautifully executed second novel, 1997’s The Pirate’s Daughter, produced both shaky sales figures and tepid responses from once-gushing critics, and his flat 1997 novella, Vaporetto 13, was a certified clunker in every way. Making the bumps and bruises throb that much harder, Hollywood’s initial slobber job over his modern epics of flawed heroes, supernatural twists, and old-fashioned love stories turned into so many false promises.

But during his bittersweet sojourn from exclamation point to question mark, Girardi started to become, well, serious, producing an avalanche of intricate details, adult characters, and heavy themes—and abandoning many of the thrill-ride plot structures and swatches of cool dialogue that made Madeleine’s Ghost and The Pirate’s Daughter such sumptuous summer reading. Just what happens when the Next Big Thing is made to wait a little bit longer? Maybe that Next Big Thing simply grows up.

The new A Vaudeville of Devils, a collection of seven short stories and novellas, details the lives of men—from all over the country, the world, the time-space continuum—who sift through the discourse between good on one shoulder and evil on the other and determine a particular course of action. (Although his female leads have always been confident and tough—and always uniquely beautiful—Girardi is first and foremost a guy’s-guy writer, in both protagonists and tone.) The author refuses to buy into the notion of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black; in his eyes, the lot of us are cloaked in a hazy shade of gray. And therein lies the sweet spot of this collection: Girardi’s O. Henry turnabouts—which never let loose until the final few paragraphs—never fail to connect to his protagonists’ all-too-human monochromatism.

In “The Demons Tormenting Untersturmfuhrer Hans Otto Graebner,” a weary and war-crippled SS officer, “a sharp-chinned bitter-looking fellow with colorless eyes and thin lips,” is given orders to exterminate an elderly (and very popular) Belgian artist living near a North Sea beach resort. Whereas the German, who keeps remorse and introspection at bay with a barrage of cigarettes, booze, and prostitutes, manages his affairs—and, for the most part, the inner workings of his mind—with a relentless coldness, the artist is a peaceful man living a slow, simple life and entertaining slow, simple thoughts. Girardi’s finale, when opposites finally collide in the artist’s loft, is a Serlingesque beauty—and the most uplifting finish in the collection.

Dreamlike and utterly baffling, “The Dinner Party” follows the last few hours of the end of the world—or, possibly, the beginning of a new one. Set in a (maybe) mansion on a (maybe) hill in a (maybe) South American city—with eerie green flames engulfing the land and the less fortunate below—the story is both unreal and unrelenting, about vampires and devils, or gods and monsters, or the rich and the poor. There is rarely an anchor of reality to hug for comfort, yet Girardi never loses the reader with his distorted details and Goreyesque sketch-characters.

A few of the guests put up a good show, sipping gin fizzes with false smiles, telling jokes, trying to take the measure of their new masters. Making conversation as their world burned around them. These were the ones who could knife their own mothers should the need arise, then go smiling to breakfast. Most of the others looked shaken and scared. Many sobbed openly, huddled together at the windows. It wouldn’t go well for them.

The narrator here is either one of them or one of us, constantly tempted with their foodstuffs, their booze, their fucking. If he accepts their lifestyle, he lives forever but loses his final vestiges of self; if he refuses their lifestyle, he dies and must return to battle them again (and then die and die…and so it goes). His quandary—not to mention Girardi’s message, and the story’s finale, and, hell, the story itself—is cloudy at its clearest, yet the sick, sinking sensation the author manages out of vague description and a curious, fiery glow is his finest burst of writing to date.

The longest story in the collection, at 116 pages, “The Primordial Face” features Girardi returning to his Robert Louis Stevenson-with-a-laptop mode: cinematic set pieces and Technicolor visions blended with the inner workings of downtrodden men. An American expatriate and a German mute, who have left modern worlds in Miami and Dusseldorf, respectively, for the harsh realm of the Gulf of Aden, take temporary jobs on a contemporary treasure hunt. The expedition leader is an Arab-American; his partner is his New Jersey- accented daughter, “no older than seventeen, pretty in a sharp Levantine way and dressed in Western clothes,” which often include, as a rather randy Girardi reports on more than one occasion, a purple thong bikini. Here, Girardi has it both ways: a fast, tense plot injected with humor (mostly from the sassy, profane teenager: a Lolita with one-liners) and an examination of three men thrown into the wilderness of loneliness after muddled attempts at love.

When one of the men finally finds (or does he?) the title relic at the bottom of the sea, his feelings are not of supernatural discovery but an all-too-natural regret:

The mouth gaped open in a soundless lament; the nostrils flared in the wide, flat nose; the eyes were deep black holes. What had made this thing, the hand of man or the hand of God, Eduardo couldn’t say. The blank stare of the face’s empty eyes reached into the bottom of his soul….[H]e heard a booming voice calling out to him from the farthest recesses of the deep—Go home, go home—or perhaps it was nothing, a whisper, some trick of pressure against his helmet.

The downside to Girardi’s morph from crowd-pleaser to self-pleaser is that his work is no longer, well, fun. He still possesses the innate ability to entertain, but the guilty-pleasure twists and pyrotechnic plot turns so dominant in his earlier work have been replaced by matters much more moving. These new ghosts exist only in the hidden chambers of memory; no longer do they drop boulders from the ceilings of apartments or seduce mortal men with wanton whispers. What happens when the Next Big Thing is forced to grow up? Maybe the moral quandaries of ordinary existence become scary enough. CP