Spirit's hunger for connection seen from male, female angles SHORT STORIES

August 18, 1991|By Diane Scharper

GIRLS IN THE GRASS. Melanie Rae Thon. Random House. 272 pages. $18.

PANGS OF LOVE. David Wong Louie. Knopf.

225 pages. $19. The title story in David Wong Louie's first book, "Pangs of Love," refers to Mrs. Pang. Emigrating from China, Mrs. Pang believes that America is a place where dreams live; then she learns some of the many ways that dreams die. Similarly, each of the 12 stories in this collection focuses on Chinese-Americans who try to connect but find they cannot; their desire becomes "the flash of heat that accompanies the spirit's flight at the moment of death."

"Inheritance," the final story, contains a cautionary tale, which sets the book's tone: Two beggars sit on the ground. One draws a circle, calls it earth, and explains that the earth is a barren place. Then he sprinkles a handful of seeds, covers them with dirt and waters them. The second beggar is horrified, since those seeds represent their last meal. But, the seeds will grow, the first beggar assures his companion. The two hungry men fall asleep. When they awaken, they see beautiful, delectable plants. However, they assume they are dreaming, go back to sleep and never awaken.

Wallace Wong, the protagonist of "Birthday," also dreams. Wong has fallen in love with Sylvie and her 5-year-old son. When he finds that he no longer has a place in the boy's life, he despairs. The boy's voice "was lost to me," he says, "just as my own boyhood voice is forever gone . . . like radio signals, bouncing off the four corners of the universe.

"Displacement" (which appeared in "The Best American Short Stories 1989") looks at another lost person. Mrs. Chow, an artist, comes to America. Staring at the horizon, she sees only that "the land on the other side will never come into view." The story, Mr. Louie has said in an interview, is about people . . . "whose dislocation is not just spatial but cultural, psychic, and emotional; it is undefined, unarticulated unease I have known my whole life. . . ."

Melanie Rae Thon's first collection of short stories, "Girls in the Grass," also focuses on the spirit's hunger for connection, but she looks at that hunger from a female perspective. "How could anyone forgetthe smell of his mama's milk," she writes, "when nothing, nothing could ever be so sweet."

Her subjects range from the erotic daydreams of adolescent girls in the title story to the terrifying memories of an old Southern belle. Many of these 11 stories are told as interior monologues, in which the narrators are haunted by female voices from their past.

Maggie, in "The Sacrifice," prays for the survival of her son, hearing "the story of all women running through her veins like a river, a river of women's blood rolling over the stones that had struck them dumb." This story cannot be written, only known, the narrator explains, "as a bloom in the brain, a mother's hand . . . all the hands of women. . . ."

The story's source, as Ms. Thon describes it throughout her book, is woman's sexuality: The girl kisses; her mouth becomes as soft as the flesh of a grape. The woman wakes her son; her smell -- the scent of bruised flowers -- fills the room. Like ancient mother goddesses, these women are heavy with their own fecundity; their sex is dangerous and puts them in danger. In "Lizards," Cal remembers Miss Faye: "He saw her belly swelling by the minute . . . pumped full of air. Her thighs spread, her wrists grew thick. . . . she began to laugh in a frightening way."

Both of these collections are powerful. The authors describe the dark place where dreams die and spirits hunger. Their metaphors illuminate; their words provide the flash of heat.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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