As he explains in the touching introduction to his short-story anthology Speaking With The Angel, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) convinced an all-star lineup to donate original work in support of TreeHouse, a school that helps autistic children—Hornby's son among them. For readers, the collection is a win-win proposition. Not only does a portion of its $12 cost benefit a good cause, but it's also a sampler of stellar new fiction from the likes of Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius), Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones's Diary), Roddy Doyle (The Barrytown Trilogy), and Hornby himself. The authors each contribute first-person narratives, but any other connection between their diverse stories is tenuous at best. In its broadest design, Speaking With The Angel could be viewed as a sweeping survey of contemporary British and Irish life, but only because most of the writers describe characters in their own backyards. And even then, what to do with Eggers' "After I Was Thrown Into A River And Before I Drowned," a playful allegory about the brief and exuberant life of a neighborhood dog? Despite the piecemeal sequencing, the 13 stories move briskly, beginning on a light note with Robert Harris' hilarious "PMQ," in which the Prime Minister calmly explains his renegade misadventures with a 15-year-old girl and a stolen car. Other highlights include Giles Smith's "Last Requests," about a humane blue-collar woman who arranges the last meal for inmates on Death Row; Colin Firth's "The Department Of Nothing," about a boy entranced by his bedridden grandmother's twisted stories; and Patrick Marber's "Peter Shelley," a bittersweet coming-of-age tale about teenage kids losing their virginity to the Buzzcocks' "Love You More." Marber's story would seem more likely to come from Hornby, an expert chronicler of the pop-culture-obsessed mind, but Hornby's "NippleJesus" looks at the art world from the perspective of a thick-necked bouncer who's anything but knowing or cosmopolitan. Hired to guard a piece of controversial artwork from vandals, he's transfixed by the artist's depiction of Christ, a mosaic of thousands of tiny cutout breasts that looks reverent from afar and pornographic up close. Just when the story seems like a predictable screed against censorship, told through the enlightened eyes of an average Joe, Hornby levels a more potent critique of the hollow, meaningless provocations that are sometimes mistaken for real vision. But the clear standout of this anthology is Doyle's dazzling "The Slave," a breathless monologue delivered by a 42-year-old working stiff, whose discovery of a dead rat sends him reeling into a midlife crisis. What appears at first to be a common household incident, nothing more than a rude interruption to the man's early-morning routine, looms as a crude reminder of his own vulnerability and impending death. Benefit compilations are often a waste bin for artists' odd scraps, but Hornby's friends set a higher standard, and Speaking With The Angel showcases many of them in top form.

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