Arch, unadorned views of Christmas

December 21, 1992|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Contributing Writer

This rich, attractively presented collection of 27 short stories -- written mainly by Americans during the past 30 years or so -- might have been entitled instead "A Literary New Year's Eve." Many of the characters are engaged in that end-of-the-year soul inventory that may occur at family festivities or the office Christmas party when one gazes around at all the dear, familiar faces and thinks: How on earth did I wind up here?

Or, as the postmodern Scrooge in Thomas Disch's "Xmas" reflects: "Christmas was coming at him like the searchlight in pursuit of an escaped convict, ready to expose the mess he'd made of his life."

The partnerless protagonists of Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jane Smiley are uncomfortably aware of their single state when visiting their married siblings and their rowdy little nieces and nephews. "Who am I to stand in judgment?" Ms. Beattie's heroine wonders, trying to keep her temper. "I am a thirty-eight-year-old woman out of a job, on tenuous enough footing with her sometime lover." Ms. Smiley's confirmed bachelor, on the other hand, has no qualms about getting thoroughly plastered before dinner and starting a brawl over his conservative brother's child-rearing methods.

An intense child's view of family get-togethers is Paul Bowles' "The Frozen Fields," which depicts a grim father-son conflict with a surprise happy ending. Likewise, the poor little Irish boy in Frank O'Connor's "Christmas Morning" realizes that he will turn into his father -- "mean, common, and a drunkard" -- if he doesn't grow up quickly.

But the terrible-family prize goes to Tobias Wolff's darkly hilarious "Champagne," in which the head of the household makes everyone watch a Christmas TV special starring Lawrence Welk -- who comes "onstage salaaming in every direction, crying out declarations of humility in his unctuous, brain scalding Swedish kazoo of a voice." "The Centerpiece," by Peter Matthiessen, offers a moving resolution of intergenerational strife when a priceless ornament catches fire at dinner.

Nor is marriage exempt from Yuletide shake-ups. "A Clock Ticks at Christmas," by mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, tells how a wealthy young woman infuriates her nouveau riche husband by inviting two larcenous little waifs to her luxury apartment for Christmas goodies. On a happier note, the loving family in Ron Carlson's "The H Street Sledding Record" celebrates life by taking a death-defying slide down a steep, major city street every Christmas Eve.

Christmas consumerism gets a good-natured ribbing in Italo Calvino's "Santa's Children," when a public relations director stumbles upon the lucrative concept of "The Destructive Gift." "The Night of the Magi" is Leo Rosten's funny dialect story about a teacher of English as a second language who must gracefully accept his students' bizarre gift selections each year.

Filled with surprises, both exotic and homey, "A Literary Christmas" is the perfect present for fiction-lovers everywhere.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Literary Christmas: Great Contemporary Christmas Stories."

Editor: Lilly Golden.

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly.

Length, price: 321 pages, $20.

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