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Ethan Coen is the Samuel Gelbfisz Professor of English as a Second Language at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of Homeward Plods: Images of the Cowswain in 18th Century Verse and For Art’s Sake: Schopenhauer’s Esthetics.
There is a very good chance that, in the safe sobriety of sunlight, the Coen brothers, those merry-prankster filmmakers responsible for such mind-numbing experiences as Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski, enjoy the everyday notions of the regular joe: breakfast, work, dinner, Yahtzee.
However, as dusk arrives and that zone is breached between sleep and dreams, maybe those irrepressible Coen boys, whether they like it or not, conjure up mundane landscapes freckled with ill-used wood chippers and wet, wilting wallpaper and blood-soaked severed ears floating weightless in the twilight. Dangerous times, indeedin-limbo lies, adultery, and cold, cold bloodbut perfect inspiration for genius movie-making.
On the other hand, there’s also a very good chance that the CoensJoel, the writer-director, and Ethan, the writer-producerare borderline sociopaths all day and all of the night. Simply: You just never know with these guys. They can be wildly funny (Raising Arizona); they can be wildly cruel (Fargo). They can be frustratingly straightforward (Miller’s Crossing); they can be frustratingly vague (Barton Fink). Try to pin them down with a simple summation in a simple genre and they’ll squirm away, as straight-faced (but giggling inside) as before. Often, the Coens’ appreciation of their own audience’s intelligence is in question. Are we stupid? Are we dumb? Is Barton Fink some snide inside joke to make us feel like brainless cattle? How dare they try to deceive their loyal followers? They may be insulting us; they may not. And that’s just the way the brothers like it.
As I said, you just never know with these guys.
He is married to the percussionist Grace Buller-Gorge, whose husband Sir Hugh Ayrehead-Maybe of the Austin-Davies Ayrehead-Maybes is Chief Disciplinarian of the Glamorgan Male Choir. They have two children, Alun and Gwynff, as does he.
Ethan Coen’s literary debut, Gates of Eden, a modest volume of 14 short stories, is, in most ways, exactly what you would expect. In fact, look no further than “A Fever in the Blood,” about an inept gumshoe who loses his hearingand suffers a fatal twist because of his handicapto find your first detached ear (an echo of The Big Lebowski, wherein John Goodman’s disillusioned Vietnam vet gnaws off the ear of Peter Stormare’s porn-star-cum-nihilist).
In fact, in almost every one of Coen’s Technicolor tales here, vague parallelsor, in some cases, obvious referencesto one of the brothers’ films are apparent: all-too-human mobsters, bumbling private investigators, clueless folks who become bumbling private investigators, double- and triple-crosses caused by love or lust or a sweaty combination of the two.
What ultimately makes Gates of Eden a genuine Coen brothers production are the subtle gestures and left-of-center details that render already captivating set pieces even more vivid. In the collection opening, “Destiny,” during a particularly graphic and potentially dangerous ménage à trois between a mobster’s wife and two hired gigolosand while the cuckolded mobster himself is watching the luridness unveil on a television monitorthe primary soundtrack is not the guttural cries of coitus but James Taylor’s weepy “Fire and Rain.” None of the characters think anything of the musical choice. And therein lies the classic Coen touchwhether you buy into it or not.
Gates of Eden packs its most vicious punches in “The Old Country” and “The Boys,” the former hinting at the coldness of parenthood and a wasted life on autopilot, the latter confirming that there is in fact a storm brewing and it’s a helluva lot worse than anyone ever thought.
In “The Old Country,” as close to autobiographical as any Coen creation has journeyed, the narrator (presumably a young Ethan, but who the hell knows?) tells the story of Michael Simkin, a Hebrew school classmate who raises hell every minute of every day until the class clown’s parents do something drastic (threaten him? drug him? beat him to within an inch of his life?). The real drama in the story, however, takes place within the narrator’s own troubled mind, as he navigates the tricky terrain connecting childhood to adulthood:
For me the dark was connected to the turmoil of sleep. Sleep sometimes was easy. Sometimes, though, as I started to drift off, I felt myself floating back to the formless fears of early childhood. There was a certain way that the light from the hallway would fall across my cracked bedroom door, and the door’s slanting shadow excited in me a dread that I could not name; it reached back to a time when I knew no names. I stared, and my heart would start pounding. I heard voices, but they formed no words, only tones. All of my senses fell away from each other, and the door and its shadow seemed not a part of any coherent world but only the mute outer form of my inner jumbled terror.
In “The Boys,” a father takes his two preteen childrenone a slow-witted blabbermouth with far too many questions, the other a mute obsessed with a tattered Sesame Street cataloguecampingand despises every minute of the road trip. The story’s early elements are comical, the dialogue quick and smart. But instead of an uplifting denouementI love my children! God bless youth!the father (his soiled, slimy puppet strings worked by an ambiguously motivated Coen) ultimately taps into a horrific core. The story’s unwritten finale is as violent as you want to imagine:
He felt a congestion in his chest. What was it about the boys? His anger swelled at them and at a world he was certain would make losers of both of them, the one a suck-ass, the other a mute. Why should disappointment be propagated through another generation, a cruel snap traveling down an endless rope?…
What did they want with him? Who were they?
If you’re not a Coen fanand there appear to be only two Coen campsI hate ’em or I love ’emGates of Eden will seem like a long, nasty joke with no real punch line; if you are a Coen fan, then Gates of Eden will still seem like a long, nasty joke with no real punch line. Either you buy it or you don’t. Not all of the stories are as Fargo-mean as “The Boys”: The slapstick “Cosa Minapolidan” follows a group of wannabe gangsters as they try to take over Minneapolis (and fail in a pathetic, amusing way). “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland” is a breakneck first-person diatribe from a sleazy music industry exec whose prized dog has just been flushed down the toilet.
Oh, and one more thing: While you’re reading Gates of Eden, consider which twisted elements sprang from the mind of helpful brother Joelsurely the boys must assist each other with every task. Maybe Joel scripted the author’s bio, which mirrors the book and ends, like it begins, with either a truth, a half-truth, or a lie:
Coen is an accomplished nudist and is the author of a study of Scott’s Kenilworth which was universally ignored, as well as of three volumes of poetry or, if any publisher should prefer, one big one.CP