Free-Range Chickens

by Simon Rich
(Random House) $17.

Last year, Simon Rich, a writer for Saturday Night Live, released a small paperback book of short comic writing called Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations. The book almost felt like a reissue, because it harked back to a time, long before Dave Barry decided to ply his wretched hand at writing, when humorous books of essays were actually funny. With its surreal and occasionally brutal two-page comic sketches, Ant Farm was reminiscent of the crisp, effervescent early writing of Woody Allen.

Now Rich has returned with Free-Range Chickens and, as with most sophomore outings, Chickens seems a little less shiny than Ant did. There are still some great riffs on clichés, like the bit where Rich imagines going back in time to kill Hitler as a baby:

—Oh my God. You killed a baby.
—Yes, but the baby was Hitler.
—Hitler. It's... complicated.
—Officer? This man just killed a baby.

And bits like Dracula posting on Match .com—"I am normal human looking for human woman to come to castle. I am normal, regular human"—are good silly fun too. But the bloom is already, slightly, off the rose, and after reading a second slender book of tiny humorous essays, the reader wants Rich to try his hand at writing a play or screenplay or anything just a little longer, to expand that intellect and sharp sense of humor into something more satisfying than a quick belly laugh. PAUL CONSTANT

My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

by Paul Guest
(Ecco) $23.95.

The holidays are a time for emotional gluttony. We are all Kafka and Kundera this winter. Yes! Sad season is finally here. I welcome you to the pity party and insist you read Paul Guest's twisted, derisive, sardonic poetry. Why spend any evening alone "processing" when you can curl up with spicy rum and a sexy paraplegic poet who will lull you into remembering that "everything is fucked... our sadness [is] debilitating." In his new poetry collection, Guest delivers what we really crave in winter—the sick truth that there is nothing special about human existence except the ability to endure it, to write your own eulogy and laugh in its filthy face.

And I will help you lose my two hundred pound wheelchair somewhere in Toronto. I will laugh like a marrow-fat hyena when you call it my chariot. When you mention Stephen Hawking or Christopher Reeve. Because you are the first. The only. The original, the initiator, the big dog, the supreme wit, I will nod serenely. I will identify with your sister in a wheelchair. Or your cousin. Or your pet whimpering at home. Yes, lupus is sad. I will never not be sad. Just for you... If you can't hear me, then deafness too is sad. Let's be sad awhile.

Guest is perfectly jaded, self-deprecating, and cruel enough to get you through anything. This is an everyday companion book for this sad season and your sad life. When you start to become all cozy with your new paraplegic poet friend, your left brain inevitably extends the disabled metaphor to your own atrophied life. Don't do it! In fact, get the fuck out of his book. You are just a strange voyeur he lets in for a minute. Why wouldn't he trust you? He has nothing left to lose, and he doesn't care. He spits in your face after he has shared "the self loathing, abstract hobbies like theoretical spelunking, what to say to loved ones who won't stop shrieking... scarring children by your presence alone, an index of important terms such as catheter, pain, blackout, pathological deltoid, obsession, escort service... amputation, magnetic resonance imaging... pernicious gangrene."

You just listen, try to relate, and feel better about your life and the ski trip you have planned. He knows this. His tone changes, telling you to close the door, get out. "Allow me the democratic darkness and my pillow over my morning face." Be a good reader and drunk-dial your ex and make him or her feel more miserable than you. Stop jerking off and crying long enough to enjoy a slightly terrific collection of emotionally derelict poetry and have yourself a proper holiday. RAYNE DEMARTINI

The Butt

by Will Self
(Bloomsbury) $26.

The idea of a man facing a Kafkaesque trial for smoking a cigarette where he shouldn’t is not an original idea—Benoit Duteurtre published a very funny novel with that plot a few years ago called The Little Girl and the Cigarette. So it’s good that Will Self’s newest novel, which begins with just that premise, becomes something much bigger, and darker, than a mere satire on nanny-state laws. Self, the British satirist whose 1991 collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity is one of the strongest and most disturbing debuts in the last 20 years, can be hit or miss. At his best, he reads like a misanthropic disciple of J. G. Ballard and Martin Amis, but his last novel, The Book of Dave, was so willfully obtuse that it practically begged the reader to stop reading it. The Butt is Self’s strongest effort in years.

Tom, a British tourist on holiday in an unnamed foreign land, flings a cigarette, ostensibly his last, from a balcony. His discarded butt accidentally hits a man, injuring him, and Tom immediately finds himself at the mercy of a legal system that places savage tribal justice before pesky things like human rights. Tom has to deliver a payment to the Tayswengo people, a local tribe, as penance for his crime, and he finds himself partnered with an evil little nothing of a man named Brian, who has to do similar penance to another tribe for an unspeakable crime.

Self’s imagination is not a pretty place. The prose in the book seems to rot: “He fixated on the blood-spotted sphincter of an ancient Band-Aid that lay on the decking. Beside the pool there was a mouldy pair of cut-off jeans, a perished rubber sandal, a cracked snorkeling mask,” and “The child molester wallowed in the springs, applying mud to the corruption in his neck” are not unusual passages. But as the arduous terror of the journey unfolds, and as Tom finds himself falling into a sad semblance of love with a woman who resembles a bad photocopy of his wife, The Butt stops being about anything as mundane as a mockery of foreign belief systems or antismoking laws. It becomes a retelling of Heart of Darkness, updated for a world in which tourism is the new colonialism. Tom’s unspeakable, gruesome journey is one of the best and most unflinching pieces of satire published in 2008. PAUL CONSTANT