Yann Martel begins both this set of four early stories (collected here for the first time) and his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, <I>Life of Pi</I>, with an "Author's Note." On both occasions, he reflects with gentle deprecation upon his former self: a lost soul, an academic deadbeat, a writer who can't seem to write his way out of a paper bag. One way or another, this schlemiel of a Martel stumbles into his craft and is saved (these words have a special meaning for the seafaring <I>Life of Pi</I>).
It is this stumbling that is so endearing about Martel's writing, so paradoxically graceful. The unwieldy titles among the four stories bear witness to the essential unmanageability of any circumstance worth telling. Indeed, the title story carries the improbable weight of three layers of narrative. We never learn anything about the Helsinki Roccamtios, but it is the facts behind them that matter (and then again, the facts behind <I>those</I> facts).
"The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discor-dant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton" (yes, that's the title of the story) happens because the narrator wanders through the city of Washington and notices a sign advertising a concert. A concerto named for a Private Rankin? A discordant violin? And who, for all love, is John Morton? Naturally, the narrator of the story must attend the concert and find out what it all means. The accident of seeing a sign turns into an urgent necessity. Thereby hangs the tale and perhaps all tales, all storytelling, life itself.
In "Manners of Dying," Martel seizes upon the most literal and unforgettable way to show how our stumbling, contingent natures determine our ends. The "story" is really nine parallel stories: nine different accounts of Kevin Barlow's execution by hanging, out of possible thousands (we are given numbers 18, 319, 1096, etc.). The warden who writes to Kevin's mother is always the same warden, but the Kevin is a different Kevin every time. From the contents of his last meal to the substance of his last words, each of the nine Kevins meets his death with momentous individuality. Whoever we are, Martel tells us, we are all in the same boat, and no two boats are the same.
<I>Michael Alec Rose teaches at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.</I>