‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim – Folks on the Frightening Comic Edge

‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim    stories   (2014) – 158 pages



I knew a man in another city who owned and ran a new car dealership.  The business was quite successful, and he and his family lived a comfortable, well-to-do life.  However each spring in late April or early May, he would become terribly depressed and disconsolate.  Since it happened nearly every year, he could recognize the symptoms and would check himself into a mental facility/rest home for several weeks to deal with the problem.  After the stay he would be fit and ready to take up his position again.

Like this car dealer, the New York men and women in Donald Antrim’s stories are hyper aware of their mental problems.  They will willingly check themselves into mental hospitals as needed.  They take the anti-depressants or anti-psychosis pills as the doctor prescribes.  If anything, they will take more of the medication than recommended.  Unlike the above seemingly serene car dealer, they struggle frantically and humorously to get by in a modern world that is none too kind to them.

“What was the use in telling her how bleak he felt when people found him funny?”

 Contrast this awareness of mental illness with the way things are for most people, especially men, in the United States.  First for the average man, any hint or recognition of mental problems will cost him his standing in the community and/or even his livelihood.  Thus he must keep a tight lid on his mental state.   There is no recognition until the problem occasionally explodes into a monstrous violent act.

All of the stories in ‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ were first published in the New Yorker.  Antrim writes the kind of stories that are edgy, antic, and hilarious at the same time.  They somehow fit neatly into the pages of the New Yorker.

All of the stories sparkle here, and I will not get into the details. except the one story ‘The Actor Prepares’ is about a wild and risqué production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that you won’t forget.

Donald Antrim deals with realistic situations in these stories which usually take place in New York, but his people are usually on the dark comic edge between sanity and insanity.   They rely on their pills and their drinks to keep them happy, but the pills and drinks don’t always work.  Most of the main characters in his stories started life in the South but somehow wound up in New York like Antrim himself.    They do these grandiose acts to show the world and their girlfriends that they are fine only to wind up seeming more foolish and suspect than before.

What sets Donald Antrim apart from many other writers of stories is the peculiarity of his world.  No one else could have written these stories with the same antic yet despairing vision.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. Is there a compassion for the mental health challenges his characters endure?


    • Hi RoughGhosts,
      No, the stories are usually written from the point of view of the man having mental issues, and the people around him are having their own problems. I can’t remember any examples of compassion being expressed.


      • Thanks.Out of curiosity I scanned another commentary on the book which made reference to the “Worried well”. Those with enough money absorb a lot of psychiatric resources from those who need it but, due to illness lack the insight. I won’t be rushing to read this at this time.


        • Yes, very true. The people in these stories are prosperous enough to treat their mental illness almost like a badge of honor. But the point of these stories is not to deal with mental illness but to live in the skewed, often humorous, perspective of these mixed-up people. I liked these stories, but they are not for everyone.


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