When he's not playing neurotic, antisocial nerds in movies like The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg channels his jittery talent into writing clever comic plays and stories that often feature neurotic, antisocial nerds and insecure or downright delusional teens. The wonder is the empathy he brings to these jerks, losers and sad sacks, both on the stage and the page.
In the hilarious, ultimately touching title story in Eisenberg's first collection, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, a wise-beyond-his-years 9-year-old serves up reviews of his various dining experiences, ranging from off-putting fancy restaurants to a preachy vegan Thanksgiving. His appraisals — mostly pans — reveal his loneliness and the hypocrisies of his self-absorbed, unhappily divorced mother and neglectful, absent father.
The humor and pathos of "Bream" lie in the contrast between the boy's unsophisticated culinary tastes and his unwittingly perceptive, heartbreaking judgments about his distracted, dissembling parents. A sushi restaurant, which rates just 16 out of 2,000 stars, consists of "gross fish bodies on rice," while roasted beetroots in the new healthy school lunch program are "dark red balls that kind of look like bloody feces and which I have recently discovered produces just that." But he knows just which end of the glass is up when his mother inappropriately brings him along on a date to The Whiskey Blue Bar at the W Hotel and behaves embarrassingly. Among other realizations, he sadly understands that she wants to show her "Widower Friend" — a term he translates as "someone rich who Mom is trying to marry" — what a devoted mother she is.
Many of the book's shorter pieces are comic sketches rather than full-fledged short stories. Most consist entirely of dialogues or diatribes, some delivered via text or letter. Eisenberg has a terrific ear, especially for adolescent inflections, absurdity, self-delusion and insecurity. He also has a flair for off-the-wall ideas, including a lonely Jesus who complains that the only person who speaks Aramaic in New York City is a creepy Columbia professor who keeps asking "these totally personal questions about my mom."
Another scenario you could easily mistake for classic Woody Allen occurs in the funniest of four "Final Conversations at Pompeii." A mistress worries that she and her lover will be found out before he gets around to telling his wife about her. "Relax," he assures her. "We are totally alone. In a thousand years, no one would ever walk in here."
Typical of Eisenberg's serio-comic humor is "My Prescription Pamphlets as Written By My Father," in which a Type-A self-made man with anger management issues rails against his son's medications. He clearly regards the boy as a lazy malingerer. Commenting on the antidepressant, Zoloft, he writes: "This medication was prescribed by your doctor because you probably told him about the time I threw the alarm clock at the wall and accidentally hit you in the head. I was throwing it AT THE WALL! I had a terrible day; a man is allowed to throw things in his own home ... You're not happy? Who's happy?" He rants that he did just fine without benefit of such "pick-me-ups" as the antipsychotic, Haldol: "I turned out terribly, didn't I?! Becoming the youngest partner at my firm! Buying a six-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath in Fort Lee! Twenty-six years married to the same woman and three Carnival Cruises together! Yeah, I'm a really awful person." Those Carnival Cruises? Priceless.
Eisenberg's skits are better read in small bites than in rapid succession, and might be better still heard aloud. "Manageable Tongue Twisters" showcases his fondness for wordplay: "How much lumber could a woodchuck discard/If a woodchuck could discard lumber?" Some clever ideas wear thin quickly, including a series of failed pickups at a bar, while others fail to deliver much more than their titles, such as "My Spam Plays Hard to Get" and "A Marriage Counselor Tries to Heckle at a Knicks Game."
But with its panoply of neurotics and narcissists and its smart mix of stinging satire and surprising moments of sweetness, Bream Gives Me Hiccups brings to mind fellow comic actor/writers Woody Allen, Steve Martin and B.J. Novak. It also offers a youthful new twist on what one of Eisenberg's hopeless dreamers refers to — ironically, of course — as the cruel "irony of life."