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Mitch Levenberg’s Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants

As I was hovering at the border between writing poetry and writing fiction, I discovered a collection of short stories, Mitch Levenberg’s Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants, which made me determined to cross the line. Levenberg has a special gift for describing the places we pass through every day and the little broken promises we find there—the dinner foods and diner scenes, the coffee with malfunctioning milk, the canned soup masquerading as homemade, the kind of melancholy that gets caught in your throat and becomes laughter.

Levenberg’s stories are at once sad and funny, as in the case of one protagonist’s description of his dad’s existence: “Life wore for my father a pair of heavy pants, and not once did it ever take them off.” Levenberg shares with his readers strange proverbs that wield a well-executed paranoia. In “Telepathy,” we learn that “Dip can be devastating if not properly digested.”

Levenberg loves language and its possibilities enough to have the narrator of “The Cat'” try to use his good grammar sense to stop thugs: “I stood there helpless, although with a solid foundation of grammar behind me, so first I tried the imperative and said, ‘Stop it or I’ll…!’ and then the conditional and said, ‘If you don’t stop, I’ll…!’ and finally the subjunctive saying, ‘If I were you I wouldn’t…!’ but nothing helped.”

The narrators of Principles of Uncertainty confront the futility, stagnation, and mediocrity of life with a wry sense of humor and a weary hopefulness. In “Alaska,” “Young couples were starting to take out what they called ‘destiny insurance’ just in case that which was meant to be never is.”

These characters recognize the weight of the American Dream, but also the importance of mocking it, turning it on its head, feeding it middling soup out of a can that never promised to be anything better. All I can say is that I hope there’s a Levenberg novel on the way.