McSweeney's 39 is handsome hard bound volume with some great inserts of photos of people running in various settings by former MTV VJay Tabitha Soren (and current wife of Michael Lewis). However, the real attraction of this volume is that it contained stories by some of my favorite contemporary writers and more than a few surprises. I sold on the promise of a new Karen Sisco (from Out of Sight) story, "Chick Killer," from Elmore Leonard, fiction from Spokane native Jess Walter, "Anything Helps," an essay, "Politics and Conscience," from one of my political heroes Vaclav Havel, and a poem, The Neolchileans," from Roberto Bolano, of whom I have only read prose by. All of these satisfied my curiosity. However, I wasn't expecting such a strong collection with several excellent other pieces.There were only a few pieces that did not interest me-so overall it is one of the stronger collections I've read recently.
The two nonfiction pieces by Tom Barrash, "The Shah's Man," and Jennie Erin Smith, "Benjamin Bucks," were among the best in the book. "The Shah's Man" was a fascinating profile of former Nelson Rockefeller protege Bobby Armano who ended up as the Shah of Iran's right hand man. It follows his ousting from Iran and rise of Khomeini as well as the subsequent battles for recognition and support than end with death in exile. Along the way he is given exile by Panamanian President Jose Torrijos, who had a stake in having Carter remain President since Regan was unlikely to relinquish control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Smith's piece about a Mormon reptile smuggler is also a strange and fascinating story told from several exotic locations around the world about a subject that I had never considered before.
There were several other short stories that I enjoyed as well. For example, E.C. Osondu tells the story of a lonely widow that is taken advantage of while in holiday in Gambia Africa. The predators are "Bumsters" African men who live off rich female travelers. Benjamin Weissman has an entertaining and frequently funny story about family, death, and tarantulas in "Louella Tarantula." Abi Maxwell tells the story of two young Swedish girls coming to America to very different fates in "Giant Of The Sea." "Carlos The Impossible" is a mythic tale of a bull that cannot be defeated.