Wide variety of voices in stories proves Wiggins' versatility Ms. Wiggins' collection reveals a refined talent.

July 14, 1991|By Joan Mooney

BET THEY'LL MISS US

WHEN WE'RE GONE.

Marianne Wiggins.

HarperCollins.

180 pages. $19.95.

Marianne Wiggins, perhaps understandably, does not appear wish to be remembered as the separated wife of Salman Rushdie. Nowhere in her new book of short stories does she mention that some were written when the two of them were in hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a death sentence on Mr. Rushdie following the publication of his novel "The Satanic Verses." Only the dates and places where the stories were written -- Wales, April 1989; London, February 1990 -- help make the connection.

This collection calls to mind her first book of short stories, "Herself in Love," published in 1987, before her marriage to Mr. Rushdie or the publication of her widely praised novel, "John Dollar." One of the most affecting stories in the new collection, "Balloons 'N Tunes," follows the characters from an earlier one, "Ridin' Up Front With Carl and Marl."

In that story, Carl and Marl have been married 10 years and are living in a small Southern town. In "Balloons 'N Tunes," Carl is sitting in his kitchen talking to Marl -- but it soon becomes clear she died six months earlier.

He feels guilty he let her be cremated -- even though that was her wish -- because he knows she always hated the heat. And he can't make sense of the dreadful thing that happened when he scattered her ashes. A bit of black comedy is provided by his young neighbor, the well-intentioned but bumbling Delores, who brings him an inedible microwave meal. This blending of the mundane with the most deeply felt human emotions is what Ms. Wiggins does best.

Several of the stories are written from the viewpoint of an elderly person. In less than three pages, "A Cup of Jo" movingly describes Harry's struggle to find the words to describe a morning when he and his friend, Joey, were fishing for trout on the Snake River. The story highlights the frustrations of old age: He starts to write a letter and then realizes the intended recipient is dead; his letter turns out to be only a drawing of a fish. The well-meaning woman with him cannot grasp what he is trying to say at all.

Elsewhere, Ms. Wiggins portrays well the complicated relationship between husband and wife or mother and daughter. "Evolution" is a funny story about a woman whose 14-year-old daughter comes home from a party drunk. "She should have named this child 'Anita' like she wanted. A daughter named 'Anita' would put away six margaritas, dance her tootsies off on rooftops and bring grief and desolation to the federalistas, not to Vy." As Cicely sleeps into her hangover, Vy is preoccupied with ** rehearsing her part in "Optimizm Hertz," a play about the first black Jewish woman president from Florida. This story is delightful, and somehow the ambiguous, melodramatic ending is just right.

A few of the stories get a little too caught up in technique for my taste. In "Zelf-Portret," the narrator rambles on about Dutch painters and the height of various dictators, then moves on to Anne Frank. The story ends, "Jou [you] tell me how we end. Jour're the artist. I'm just the artist's friend."

Only "Croeso I Gymru" overtly hints at Ms. Wiggins' life with Mr. Rushdie. It begins, "We were on the lam in Wales" and tells mostly of the narrator's fascination with the mundane details of Welsh life. Weaving the sentence in among references to Welsh legends, she writes, "We wait for one aged psychopath to die."

The wide variety of voices in this collection is a tribute to Ms. Wiggins' versatile talent. She can bring a distinctive character to life in a few pages. She is on less certain ground in the more experimental stories, which often seem unfocused. But the collection reveals a refinement of the talent she displayed in her first book of stories.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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