Outstanding examples of the American short story genre

December 30, 1990|By TIMOTHY KELLEY

A Relative Stranger. Stories by Charles Baxter. W. W. Norton & Co. 223 pages. $17.95 I have a theory -- perhaps it's not entirely my own -- that the American short story reflects not just evolving taste, but a kind of advancing technology.

The understatement that was so novel in Hemingway, the precise ear for dialogue that dazzled in Salinger-- these, the theory holds, have now become almost compulsory in a prevalent kind of realistic story defined by economy, indirection and cumulative emotional force through accretion of detail.

How, then, to praise adequately a writer like Charles Baxter, who has invented nothing, perhaps, but has brought this established genre to well-nigh perfect efficiency?

If you compare him to the best automakers of Japan, that sounds like a knock; it's disloyal, too, to the sad Michigan landscape featured in most of "A Relative Stranger," Mr. Baxter's third collection.

Maybe you just say straight out: There are some phrases in these 13 stories that were quite possibly mailed to Mr. Baxter in individual envelopes direct from God. A troubled teacher rebukes himself for dwelling in "the lagoon of self-consciousness and irony." A Swede hit on the head in downscale Detroit first comes to, then notices the return of "the smaller debris of consciousness." Then there's the opening line of the only New Yorker story in the bunch, a story called "Snow":

"Twelve years old, and I was so bored I was bombing my hair just for the hell of it."

The stories are just as rich in memorable images: of "bare feet with painted toenils on the ice," of "a disheveled woman who has rushed down two flights of stairs to offer a last long kiss."

They move from sentence to sentence in a way that somehow surprises, deepens character, advances plot and entertains all at once.

They include a reversed retelling of the Scheherazade legend and an inescapable evocation of the elderly Ezra Pound. And they excel -- startlingly, for a male writer -- in delineating the resigned disappointment of women with men.

The author is overfond of metaphors that play upon "ideas" as physical things. His effects fall into the lagoon once or twice, but even this is a badge of honor, bespeaking the bold risks he's taken.

Mr. Baxter is 43. When better realistic literary short stories are written, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he writes them.

Mr. Kelley is a writer living in Washington.

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