Stories about childhood strike resonating chord of recognition while entertaining the reader

September 13, 1992|By Ann Egerton


Edited by Lorrie Moore.

Faber & Faber.

245 pages. $19.95. Stories about childhood from the child's point of view, such as "David Copperfield," "Huckleberry Finn," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Catcher in the Rye," have an important place in literature. They strike a chord of recognition in us as we remember how we looked at ourselves, at adults and at life's events when we were very young. Such stories entertain and move the reader, triggering long-forgotten and often skewed images.

The short stories that Lorrie Moore has collected in "I Know Some Things" often mark turning points and revelations in the storytellers' lives. They underscore possible misinterpretations of adults' actions, as in Glenda Adams' "Lies," and they unveil changing perceptions of them, as in Margaret Atwood's "Betty." They reveal the staggering power of peer pressure as in Jamaica Kincaid's "Gwen" and Peter Meinke's "The Panoes."

Many of the tales examine situations that are certainly timeless but currently getting much societal attention. "The Point," by Charles D'Ambrosio Jr., is a poignant description of a 13-year-old boy's "job" of escorting his mother's drunken female friends home late at night. After his father's suicide, which he discovered, he has become a miniature parent to both his mother and her dysfunctional pals.

D. J. Durnam, in "I Know Some Things," presents a fittingly skittish portrait of a young girl being wrenched from the comforting but unsuitable company of the middle- aged baby sitter by her new step-father. Perhaps the most heart-breaking story in the collection is Richard McCann's "My Mother's Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame," in which an 11-year-old boy and his friend dress up in his mother's clothes and jewelry and makeup. The description of the cross-dressing RTC and the ultimate betrayal of his friend represent some of the strongest writing in the collection.

And Sheila Schwartz, in "Out of the Body Travel," manages to skillfully draw both bittersweet humor and pathos from a teen-ager's interpretation of her parent's separation, her own descent into drugs, and the visit of a very mentally disturbed cousin.

But the anthology is far more than modern sociological commentary. There are gentle, comic tales, not much more than portraits, such as Max Garland's "Signs And Wonders," a wonderful description of (presumably) the author's Uncle Kelvin, the Reverend Kelvin Stone, "a happy man" who, because of his pleasure taken from fishing, his bourbon and his pipe, was able to "elevate the souls that even the fire-breathers and the doomsdayers couldn't lift an inch."

Spalding Gray presents a charming, funny vignette of growing up in the '40s and '50s in "Sex and Death to the Age 14." His childhood was punctuated with unlucky pets, ghastly performance in school and clumsy sexual experimentation. None this is new, but it's freshly told in a slightly amazed but matter-of-fact style reminiscent of "The Catcher in the Rye."

There are two stories about fantasizing run amok in both a child and in an adult -- the second as perceived by bewildered children. In one, Catherine Petroski's "Beautiful My Mane in the Wind," a little girl believes much of the time that she is a horse. In Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," a substitute teacher regales her students with wild and improbable stories, from amending the multiplication tables to "anyone conceived during a solar eclipse would be born with webbed feet."

The storytellers are either children or adolescent; most are American, but there is Canadian, Australian and Caribbean representation as well, and two immigrant experiences (Amy Tan and Catherine Brady.) The melange of perspectives underlines the universal appeal of the child's point of view in fiction.

These 20 stories also serve notice that there are many praiseworthy contemporary writers about. How nice it would be if people would turn off their television sets and read them.

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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