Not a bunch of country bumpkins Monday Book Reviews

Monday Book Reviews

August 19, 1991|By Tom Beck

HORSE AND CART: STORIES FROM THE COUNTRY. By Elizabeth Stevens. Wineberry Press. 104 pages. $7.95. HAVING grown up in the country, I am immediately leery of stories that purport to be "from the country." However, since the art of fiction is the interpretation and dramatization of experience, I am willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief and look for the artfulness in Elizabeth Stevens' collection of short stories.

Many readers will recognize Stevens not as a writer of fiction, but as an art and architecture critic. She served in that capacity for four newspapers TomBeckover 25 years and authored "Elizabeth Stevens' Guide to Baltimore's Inner Harbor." Less well known is that her background includes a graduate degree in contemporary literature, and that her fiction and poetry have been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and journals.

In fact, the first three stories in the new collection were initially published separately in different journals. "The Dark-Eyed Boy," "The Other People" and "The Kill" already may be familiar to some readers. These stories and two others which comprise the present volume fit together as if they had been written to form a cycle.

Unity is achieved among the stories particularly through similarities in voice and intensity. Whether the main character is a pregnant woman, a working-class family man, a young woman, an elderly widower or a country woman, one hears sameness in '' the voices of the main characters despite differing personalities, ages and circumstances.

The reader senses the author at work behind the scenes. Each succeeding story modifies the previous one as more is revealed by the main characters about the author's concerns. For example, the fears and anxieties of the pregnant woman in the first story prepare one for the worries and troubles of George, the protagonist in the second story. One gets the feeling that Stevens has presented us with a very large canvas painted in sections and neatly seamed together.

However, the imagery has more in common with "Deliverance" than with a pastoral landscape by Corot. Each story contains anxious moments which in the end are only somewhat resolved. The level of tension in the stories serves as a compelling force. In "The Other People," for example, one is a little breathless wondering whether the protagonist was spied having sex with the simpleton Aunt Ba. As a painter with words, Stevens achieves such three-dimensionality in her characters that, regardless how fantastical the stories become, one wants to see what the characters will do next.

Country people, rather than landscapes, dominate the stories, which unfold primarily through the carefully crafted statements and inner monologues of the protagonists. Although their universes are small towns and rural surroundings, each character possesses virtues and vices with which all readers may identify. Moreover, the main characters face at least one crisis and survive, usually without major changes to their lives.

It becomes clear from the stories that Stevens certainly has her own view of country life. As though intending to explode the image of country people as relaxed and laid back, Stevens makes her characters obsessive and hypertensive. The pregnant woman in "The Dark-Eyed Boy" feels threatened by two seemingly destructive boys, but there is no specific evidence that they intend any harm to her. In "The Other People," George is so obsessed by an oddball family that cooks out at the campsite next to his that he is prompted to learn more about it. The young woman in "The Kill" lounges around a country house and worries that her wedding date has not been set. At the same time, she also frets about the dangers faced by her boyfriend who has gone hunting. In the same vein, the elderly widower in "My Hands" has an overactive imagination and a preoccupation with his hands. The story abounds with sexual tension revealed as the fellow shares his innermost thoughts with the reader. The story reaches its climax as he attacks a mound in his back yard while in a fit of sexual frenzy.

Such intensity has its parallels in "Horse and Cart," the grand finale of the collection. The tension in this story derives from ruminations about death rather than sexuality. The protagonist, a country woman, observes the arrival of a mysterious black-clad man driving a horse-drawn buckboard and looking every bit in keeping with Halloween, which is just days away. The man is a failed farmer who becomes a symbol not only for death, but also for the loss of family farms everywhere. Through numerous twists and turns in the plot, the reader realizes the complexity of the country life depicted by Stevens.

It is not the complexity, however, which leads me to have doubts about the authenticity of Stevens' country life, but the frequency of bizarre events. The country life I knew as a child has more in common with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" than with that in this collection. Nonetheless, enjoyment of "Horse and Cart" made me forget momentarily my own experience and suspend disbelief.

Tom Beck is a curator at the University of Maryland Baltimore 1/2 County and a faculty member at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington.

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