Collection of short stories excels at setting mood, telling a story

November 08, 1992|By Michael Boylan

WHERE IS HERE?

Joyce Carol Oates.

Ecco Press.

` 193 pages. $18.95.

A call came from my brother in the hospital: Help me to die. You gave up expecting smiles from him -- the facial muscles had atrophied. Also his eyelids couldn't close completely, he'd be watching you always. Even with the glassy eyeball rolled up blank, you knew he was watching. I said, I can't be tricked more than once! and hung up the phone. Remembering my brother had already died, and he'd done it without my help.

Thus opens "Insomnia," the best of this experimental book of short stories. In "Insomnia," a female medical student lives in three worlds: the world of her dying brother who seeks an assisted suicide, her medical training, and an eating place where she goes late at night when she can't sleep. Her dream-like patrons haunt her waking life like dreams.

What this story does very well is: (a) set a mood, (b) tell a story, (c) raise a problem (euthanasia) that stays with you.

Other winners in this collection are: "Running," "Beauty Salon," `Shot" and "Sweet." Each of these fits one of the above criteria for a successful short story.

In "Running," reality becomes bent by perceptions. This is the problem: what is real and does the real change moment-to-moment? A runner has outdistanced her male "significant other." While ahead of him, she is alone. Her life alone comes fully into view and it seems to offer a compelling logic. However, trouble confronts her on the run and her entire world view takes a dramatic twist.

"Shot" is heavy on mood. It is a contrasting scene of poverty amid affluence. A young girl is walking and comes upon a shack. There is a woman living there whose husband has just left her. The only thing he left was an old dog.

The woman picked her way barefoot -- her stubby-toed feet were very white, like her face -- through the dog droppings and broken glass and pebbles, and squatted dramatically beside the dog, hugging him suddenly with feeling and crooning to him. The dog yipped and whimpered with pleasure and licked her hands and face with his tongue; his body quivered with joy. His dirt-encrusted tail thumped against the packed earth. The girl stared and felt a small stab of envy. She asked again, "His name is 'Shot'?"

"Buckshot!" The woman laughed. "My husband's weird idea. But -- it got shortened."

The dog is kept on a chain that rubs his neck raw (he has no collar):

The dog's fur was coarser than the girl would have imagined, like wire beneath her fingertips; and without warmth. The raw strip like a necklace around the dog's neck glistened with fresh blood. The girl felt slightly ill, seeing it. She did not understand why the woman took no notice. She said, "His neck -- it's hurt?"

The woman said, "Oh -- that's nothing. That's 'cause he's a bad boy pulling at his leash all the time."

The contrasts set the mood: young and old; rich and poor; bright and dull; clean and dirty. And just as the reader begins to reproach this woman for the cruel treatment of her dog, we are forced to recognize another reality. Does this excuse her? Does it add another dimension?

This book is full of stories. They are short, shorter and shortest. I feel that most of the very short stories (200-300 words) do not really work on the criteria mentioned at the beginning of this review. They only create a scene and stop there.

What I can say is that Ms. Oates takes risks in this collection. They are experimental. Many of the experiments work.

Mr. Boylan teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

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