Hersey's compulsively readable stories

March 20, 1994|By Frank Bruni | Frank Bruni,Knight-Ridder News Service

Over the past decades, short stories in general have grown almost maddeningly opaque and minimalist: Relax your eyes for a single phrase and you're likely to miss the meaning of a piece. John Hersey didn't succumb to this trend. If he had, he would never have produced a volume as lively, touching and compulsively readable as "Key West Tales."

The best stories here -- and there are three or four gems -- are classically structured, with clear points of tension, a building sense of urgency and an outcome that answers just about all of a reader's questions.

If Hersey sacrifices the believability of some tales to their tidiness, so be it. It's a price worth paying.

Hersey died last March at age 78 in his beloved Key West, where he and his wife spent winters in the years preceding his death. "Key West Tales" reads like a valentine to this subtropical idyll of brave adventurers and dizzy dreamers, embittered outcasts and proud hedonists, tireless romantics and spent cynics.

Most of the 15 stories lean on well-chronicled facets of Key West life and history: its situation as a port in the slave trade; its extravagant Halloween parade; its large gay population, decimated by AIDS. Other stories profile one-time residents or visitors, sometimes thinly disguising their identities (Ernest Hemingway), sometimes not (John James Audubon).

In one story, Hersey writes about a novelist and three poets who gather every Wednesday for "A Game of Anagrams." In real life, Hersey gathered weekly with poets Richard Wilbur, John Malcolm Brinnin and James Merrill for precisely such a diversion.

"Key West Tales" reads at times like a hybrid of fiction and new journalism, which is appropriate, given Hersey's legacy and versatile talents. "Hiroshima," his nonfiction account of the damage done by the atomic bomb, had the immediacy and intimacy of fiction.

Moments in "Key West Tales" rank with the best of his work, particularly the longest tale, titled "Get Up, Sweet Slug-a-bed."

Focusing on a man dying of AIDS and his circle of friends, Hersey mines this milieu not for the usual pathos or outrage but for a very original mystery: Is the male nurse whom the friends have hired to care for the man unusually zealous about his duties, or do the friends feel guilty about their own shortcomings? Can this nurse be trusted? What will he do next?

In other inventive stories, Hersey quickly raises questions the reader desperately wants answered.

In "Fantasy Fest," a woman gets a letter from the son she gave up for adoption as a baby. He announces that he is coming to Key West to meet her, and that they should do so during an islandwide costume party. If each can figure out who the other is, he says, the reunion was destined. If not, then it wasn't.

Hersey turns a wonderful phrase, contriving concise, vivid descriptions. In "The Wedding Dress," he writes of a windsurfer coming home from an especially good day on the waves: "He came breezing in, a personified wind, at a little after four. He looked as if he had just made a down payment on the whole world."

The tales alternate between full-bodied stories in regular type and pint-sized passages -- not so much stories as snapshots of local life -- in italics. The latter are somewhat disappointing, not to mention difficult on the eye: Who wants to read italics for four pages?

Not me. But the rest of "Key West Tales" I'd read all over again.

Title: "Key West Tales"

Author: John Hersey

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 227 pages, $22

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