I Am Death: Two Novellas BY Gary Amdahl. Milkweed Editions. Paperback, 216 pages. $15.

The cover of I Am Death: Two Novellas

The two novellas gathered in Gary Amdahl’s second book, I Am Death, offer a portrait of American men as fearful and bloodthirsty, as lost boys in need of both a kick in the ass and a big hug. As a literary approach, it seems initially unpromising: middle-aged-male angst set amid Mob violence, and more middle-aged-male teeth-grinding set amid soul-crushing corporate culture. But the latter scenario finds Amdahl’s funny bone on full display, and his sharply observed office politics are wincingly accurate.

The misanthropic, underachieving protagonists of both novellas affect a “What is it all worth in the end?” mentality, while secretly craving the satisfaction of integrity well rewarded. In the title work, Jack, who writes a newspaper column called “The Meaning of Life,” fancies himself a muckraker and takes on a ghostwriting project with Frank Fini, a Chicago Mob boss, who feels he’s “wasted his life.” Jack’s attempt to gather information about Fini is a wearisome process that is relayed, in part, through transcripts of interviews with people who’ve encountered the mobster. Jack’s outlook, however, is less striking than that of Amdahl, who spins some lovely dystopian descriptions of Chicago (“immense vehicles, stripped and rusting, dot the plain like skeletons of buffalo . . . billboards advertise nothing but the inscrutable spray-painted answer to a question no one you know understands”). But the author’s vision of contemporary masculinity—for which he has received such praise as “thought with extreme muscle,” from one admirer of his story collection, Visigoth (2006)—is fairly pedestrian: Men wrestle with fear and power and resort to violence when pushed too far.

“Peasants,” on the other hand, explores the fear that accompanies survival in a corporate environment. Here, the existential quandary is whether the man in question, Walter Rasmussen, should quit a thankless job. Are my colleagues backstabbers? he wonders. Is my boss a Machiavellian ass­hole? Am I a cog in the machine? Yes, yes, and yes. Rasmussen, an editor of guidebooks for users of geographic-information systems, is likable for his clear-eyed recognition of the corporate cesspool: “Was not the childish negotiation of petty grievance the primary mode of behavior in the United States of America?” he observes. In telling this man’s story, Amdahl’s gift for comedy emerges. Rasmussen is upbraided for brandishing a toy spear at his new boss and grows afraid to speak to a coworker because of the life-size cardboard cutout of Xena: Warrior Princess she keeps in her office. But Rasmussen, like Jack, desires to find the meaning of life, and for him, one approach is to “find ways to shout with laughter.”

By subtitling the title work “Bartleby the Mobster,” Amdahl points the reader toward one of literature’s great refusniks, the scrivener who told his boss, “I would prefer not to.” Amdahl’s novellas aspire to Melville’s noble statement and declare, in the end, that saying no is a manly thing to do.