One of the most common criticisms levied against the films of the Coen brothers, and one that pretty much disappeared after Fargo, concerns shallowness, the idea that the writing, producing, and directing siblings are more adept at appropriating styles than creating characters worth caring about. It's not an especially valid or well-argued criticism, but were it still being tossed around, Gates Of Eden, a collection of short stories by Ethan Coen, might help invalidate it. As with the films he makes with brother Joel, Coen proves himself adept at operating in a variety of styles, from the comical gangster stories "Destiny" and "Cosa Minapolidan" to a pair of pieces that resemble radio scripts ("The Old Boys," "Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator"). Much of the collection, like "Destiny" and the monologic "Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland" and "It Is An Ancient Mariner," is rooted firmly in the clever Coen sensibility. But just as much is not, and it's this element that makes Gates Of Eden even better than might have been expected. "The Old Country," one of a number of stories set in the Minnesota of Coen's youth, turns a fairly amusing memory of a rebellious classmate into a full-fledged exploration of the past as it tends to be remembered through the fog of childhood. Looking at things from the other side, "The Boys" captures the trapped feeling of a father vacationing with a pair of demanding children. It's one of a couple of stories that—with lines like, "Why should disappointment be propagated through another generation, a cruel snap traveling down an endless rope?"—establish Coen as an effective prose stylist, his talent as a crafter of dialogue having long been established. Of course, considering that he has yet to make a bad movie with his brother, Coen shouldn't quit his day job. But if he ever does, he's got something worthwhile to fall back on.
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