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'Hits And Misses' Doesn't Miss A Beat

In "The Baby," the first short story in Simon Rich's collection Hits and Misses, two expecting parents anxiously await the results of a sonogram. Ben and Sue are both thrilled to learn they're having a boy, but the father-to-be is less stoked when the doctor informs them that the fetus is holding a pencil. "It means you have a writer!" the obstetrician announces happily.

Sure enough, when the baby is born, he emerges from the womb with "a slim tweed blazer and a pair of Warby Parker glasses." The newborn has already completed a manuscript, a historical novel about George Custer, in which the general is reimagined as gay ("not just a little gay — fully gay"). Ben, himself an aspiring writer, has to deal with the jealousy he feels toward his son, who managed to score a blurb from George Saunders while he was still in utero.

Welcome to the sweet but twisted world of Simon Rich, the former Saturday Night Live writer turned prolific author. In his previous six books, Rich has proved he has a boundless imagination and a sharp sense of humor, and Hits and Misses continues that streak — it's a bizarre and hilarious collection from one of the funniest writers in America.

The stories in Hits and Misses vary widely in theme; the one thing they all have in common is that they're laugh-out-loud funny. In "Hands," a fourth-century Christian monk is obsessed with proving himself the most ascetic brother in his order. He's decided to cut off his hands in order to catapult himself into the ranks of legendary monks like "Macarius the Sufferer, Palladius the Sunburnt [and] Pablo the Getter of Rash."

His piety is tested when a beautiful young aristocrat asks him and another monk to take her to visit Jesus' tomb. He finds himself falling for her, despite the fact that he's a "man of God" and she's a "demonic hedonist." It ends, like so many of Rich's stories, with a sweetness that doesn't undercut the abundant and offbeat humor on display.

That's also the case with "The Book of Simon," Rich's hilarious spin on the tale of long-suffering Job. The story centers on a "wicked Hebrew in the land of Brooklyn named Simon Rich," who, despite a comfortable upbringing and charmed life, remains a staunch atheist. God decides to challenge Satan to a bet — if he showers Simon with even more blessings, surely the young writer will start to believe in him, the Lord reasons.

It doesn't work out, despite God blessing the young man with "health and wealth and unfair tax breaks, which Simon claimed to be against politically but secretly voted for in every election." It's a clever story that's self-aware and not smug in the slightest, and it showcases Rich's ability to be both funny and good-natured at the same time.

Hits and Misses closes with "Stage 13," not only the strongest story in the collection but one of the best things Rich has ever written. It follows Yoni, a young, unsuccessful director whose career has been marked by a series of failures, including "a few dog food commercials, but the best he could say about them was that, from a legal standpoint, the animals had not been abused."

The stories in 'Hits and Misses' vary widely in theme; the one thing they all have in common is that they're laugh-out-loud funny.

Yoni is contacted by a film executive with a tempting offer: a major project for a big-name studio. He's crestfallen, and more than a little confused, when he finds out who his star will be: the ghost of a 1920s actress who's been haunting one of the film company's studios. The executives want Yoni to pretend to shoot a movie starring the woman in the hopes that she'll finally leave them alone. (The project in question, a short film, has a wildly offensive name: "Fun fact," the executive tells Yoni, "It was considered racist even for its time.")

The ending of the story is uproariously funny, but it's also disarmingly warm. Rich can be edgy, but his comedy doesn't require victims; you get the feeling he actually likes his characters, and doesn't see them as just ends to a punchline. (His story "Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile," which is exactly what it sounds like, is an uproarious exception to this rule.)

He's endlessly clever, but not impressed by his own wit; gentle, but not afraid to test boundaries. It's a kind of humor that recalls early 20th-century writers like James Thurber and E.B. White, but Rich's comic genius is really all his own. He spent years being regarded as a kind of precocious wunderkind, but with this book, Rich has come into his own as one of the most talented writers of comedic fiction working today.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.