"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Book of globetrotting stories a pleasant trip with criminals

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance

By Matthew Kneale

Picador, 278 pp, 12.99 pounds

London native Matthew Kneale takes readers on a vicarious trip around the world with his volume of short stories Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance.

The crimes and criminals range from a suicide bombing by a Palestinian with second thoughts in "White" to the theft of a handful of candied chestnuts by the Eastern European housemaid of a British aristocrat in "Taste." Each of the 12 stories here is concerned with a crime, be it real or imagined, or at least with someone being wronged in some way.

That's not to say Kneale has written a collection of criminal capers--he is far more concerned with the internal lives of his varied protagonists than with their deeds. "Stone" shows the reader the destructive effect a perceived theft has on a family of British tourists in China. In "Powder" a drudge of a lawyer is tempted into the fast lane and a life of crime when he finds a satchel full of cocaine. A peasant family of dispossessed Colombian coca farmers are saved by larceny in "Leaves." The four young Welshmen in the coming-of-age tale "Seasons" bond over case of petty vandalism.

The crimes are often the result of jealousy, impulse or weakness. In "Sunlight," when constantly undermined Malcolm finally finds fulfillment as writer thanks to his wealthy wife's largesse, she does her best to wound him for his refusal to be kept as a pet and in the end makes him pay for his success. In "Weight," an overweight American oil worker is smitten by a local beauty in remote China and brings her back to Dallas, where his jealous insecurity drives her to desperation. In "Metal," a British businessman rescues his taxi driver from the police during a riot in Cairo and is inspired to turn over a new leaf before caving in to convention and returning to his role as part of the problem.

It would be a mistake to get the impression that Small Crimes is a dark, depressing ride. Kneale leavens the mix of the seven deadly sins with black humor such as the paranoid misunderstanding that is the basis of "Sound."

Amid the subtle meditations on people's need for a home instead of a house, how families fall apart, and the immorality of the arms industry, Kneale skillfully uses simple language to paint portraits of complex people. While the physical descriptions are minimal, the dialogue and passing thoughts of the characters reveal volumes.

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