Porter's stories strip away the conventions of fiction

May 12, 1991|By Jaimy Gordon


Joe Ashby Porter.

Johns Hopkins University.

144 pages. $26;

$10.95 paperback.

Ever since his luminous and sly island romance "Felgrass" appeared from New Directions in 1977, Joe Ashby Porter has been a writer's writer -- that is, a writer admired by other writers and almost unknown to the general reader. Mr. Porter is a Shakespeare scholar as well as a creative artist, and "Felgrass" grafted "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" onto the Edenic first days of druggy youth culture in America.

In 1983 Mr. Porter's first collection, "The Kentucky Stories," came out from Johns Hopkins University Press and was a succes d'estime: one tale, "The Vacation," a wry and perfectly wrought parable of the artist's vocation, made its way into Best American Short Stories.

Now Johns Hopkins, which has been publishing some of the most readably innovative fiction on the contemporary scene, has brought out Mr. Porter's second book of stories, the somewhat ** more inscrutable "Lithuania" -- so-called because (so runs the author's epigraph):

"A. It is a country and no country. With only the briefest recognition years ago, it nevertheless persists in minds, and even maintains legations. Its stony name bears the trace of an element used to treat some manias."

This riddle of a definition, with its seductively sham etymology, is a small Joe Ashby Porter fiction in itself. Enigmatic, detached, it nevertheless invests a country and "persists in minds." Except as one transplanted nationality among many, Lithuania means nothing inside of Lithuania; the name, for all its exotic sonority, simply floats above the book. But a peculiar entanglement of venues (an American in Tunis, a Tunisian in Quebec, a North Dakotan in Seattle, a Sicilian in Baltimore) also is characteristic of Lithuania and creates a mood half cosmopolitan, half displaced, for the entire collection.

The surface temperature of Joe Ashby Porter's stories is cool, the language queerly unvisceral, as if the author took pains above all to maintain a safe distance between the glassy surface of his stories and the dark turbine of mania down at their bottoms. As Mr. Porter's riddle of an epigraph ends in the query "Q. What is Lithuania?", so each piece in this volume raises the question: How is this a story? For each demonstrates that certain conventions -- certain cheap thrills of story -- can be stripped away and still the truth of fiction hauls us up in its net.

Mr. Porter likes to substitute the hazards of juxtaposition -- whatever happens in the single unifying plane of the story, its Lithuania, its locale -- for the conventions of plot. Sometimes, like "Gertrude Stein's Three Lives," his stories imitate life with their very flatness, with their incessant, unresolved mutter of gossip, anecdote, background noise, unrelieved by a climactic incident. Especially "West Baltimore" and "Hillcrest Days" collect all the banal, garbled, fragmentary and sad stories of transient neighborhoods and rundown apartment buildings and filter them through the points of view of unpropertied people. In "West Baltimore" Mr. Porter, who lived in Baltimore in the late '70s, offers a relentlessly faithful portrait of a marginal but cheerful Baltimorean who would be mute and languageless apart from the shabby streets and row houses of the 20 or so blocks where she has spent her life.

"Roof Work" and "Basse Ville" concern more predictably endearing people, an eccentric aging couple of Quebec City. The two pieces tell, separately and piecemeal, the wife's and the husband's stories, always as these stories (under the heading "Thinking Machines") show how the power of narrative is so deeply embedded in its medium that even stories driven by mechanisms irrelevant to fiction can cohere.

In "Duckwalking," for instance, story triumphs over such arbitrary and cacophonous formulas as a preference for clipped guttural syllables that pass through the letter "a" to get to the letters "c" or "k," and a barrage of reduplicative two-syllable words like Cow-cow, wah-wah, din-din, gaga, ack-ack, Wigwag and rickrack.

All these stories will make your brain work -- not everyone's idea of a good time, but fresh, intelligent, even compelling reading if you are trying to understand the nature of fiction.

Ms. Gordon's last novel was "She Drove Without Stopping."

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