Locus Magazine Review

Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories, Gregory Frost (Golden Gryphon Press 1-930846-34-7, $25.95, 344pp, hc) June 2005. Cover by Jason Van Hollander.

Gregory Frost is a somewhat elusive name in short fiction — anyone who knows the field is likely to have heard of him, but may be surprised by how little of his work is currently available, how few of his story titles seem immediately familiar. This was certainly my sensation on encountering Frost's major new Golden Gryphon collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants: only one story rang bells, and that the quite recent "Madonna of the Maquiladora" (2002). I was soon to regret my past neglect of a fine, distinctive, and angry oeuvre.

As John Kessel states in his rather persuasive Afterword to Attack, Frost is angered, feels acute pain, at the injustices and absurdities of human existence, and expresses his feelings directly. Yet although polemic informs many of the pieces here, there's a descriptive density, a macabre inventiveness, and (periodically) an incisive humor to them that defuses any sense of sermonizing. The best stories in Attack are bitingly funny, unleashing farce to emasculate evil, much as the film comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age sometimes did. Indeed, "The Road to Recovery," the excellent novella original to Attack, is a straight tribute to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby comic tradition, in which two interstellar ne'er-do-well adventurers, closely modeled on the Hope and Crosby cinematic personas, blunder into the court of a black-hearted planetary developer and his criminal cronies, dropping wisecracks everywhere, pratfalling sublimely, and (somehow) saving the day for humans and aliens both. There's a serious case concerning ecological exhaustion beneath the fun, but it simply lends urgency to the antics. Also effective on several levels is "How Meersh the Bedeviler Lost His Toes" — in outline, its tale of a concupiscent picaro over-indulging himself to near-mortal extremes might sound like a simple allegory on cupidity and lust, but the masterful high-fantastic comic detail makes "Meersh" much more than that. "Some Things are Better Left" bitterly satirizes those who exploit others, but does so in wry terms, sending up school reunions and the cult of youth in the process; "The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray" fully delivers on the promise of its title, depicting a gourmet who eats relentlessly, transferring all excess fat magically to his dinner partners; and "Attack of the Jazz Giants" blasts the racist Old South of the Ku Klux Klan in terms derived from cartoons, giant musical instruments laying waste to a dismayingly prejudiced household. "A Day in the Life of Justin Argento Morrel" is a murderous parody of macho space opera, a gleeful demolition of SF stereotypes that is also a reappraisal of gender relations, in fine New Wave idiom. All of these stories are hilarious in the best sense: comedy illuminating harsh reality.

Other tales take the route of stark thematic candor, trading on an acute metaphysical ingenuity. "Madonna of the Maquiladora" visits the sweatshop factories south of the Rio Grande, exposing all the dilemmas of cheap labor through the conceit of technologically engineered religious epiphanies; "Collecting Dust" compellingly literalizes the disharmonious tedium of middle class family life; "The Bus" is an especially savage analogy of unsustainable and inhumane economic hierarchies with the using up of human lives; "Divertimento" examines disorders of memory in haunting terms; "Lizaveta" is a brooding horror story set in Tsarist Russia, a contemplation of the ineradicability of evil in an humane society, or even in an inhumane one. Especially effective are two gothic period pieces: "In the Sunken Museum," which leads Edgar Allan Poe down dismally appropriate corridors of time, and "From Hell Again," a reworking of the career of Jack the Ripper in which guilt is made transferable. Even in his less humorous, overtly earnest frame of mind, Frost makes his points with considerable artistry.

Attack of the Jazz Giants is a notable collection, likely to stand as one of the best of 2005.

— Nick Gevers, Locus, May 2005


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