Life's chaos and implausibility appears in Stephen Dixon's stories

April 17, 1994|By Merrill Leffler

In "The Victor," a story about a novelist's jealous reaction at not winning a major fiction prize his book has been nominated for, the writer, Robert Burmeister, is sitting at a table with his wife, his small-press publisher and his editor. The publisher, perhaps trying to ease the sting of losing, asks if Robert will have a new manuscript ready for publication the next year.

His wife answers for him: "Don't worry about this guy. Living is writing, writing is living, even the stomach flu along with a death in the family and cramps hardly stop him for a day, so expect one every year and only occasionally every other year, till you yell uncle."

Mr. Dixon is poking fun at himself, of course -- he is one of publishing's most prolific writers, and Robert Burmeister is his // alter ego.

"Long Made Short," which includes "The Victor," and "The Stories of Stephen Dixon" -- 60 stories that Mr. Dixon has selected as among his best, including pieces from "Frog," the novel nominated for the 1991 National Book Award -- are his 15th and 16th books since 1976. Next year, Henry Holt will bring out a new novel. He has won numerous prizes, has been awarded fellowships, and received accolades from the likes of Grace Paley, Irving Howe, John Hollander and his colleague in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, John Barth.

Yet beyond these writers, beyond Baltimore, and beyond anthologists and editors of scores of quarterly magazines and commercial ones (they include Playboy, Esquire, the Atlantic, Harper's) who have published more than 350 of his stories, Stephen Dixon's work is not terribly familiar. This itself is remarkable,and you have to ask why.

nTC It could be attributable to his non-commercial publishers, which have included small, though classy, presses such as North Point and Coffee House or Johns Hopkins University Press: When it comes to advertising budgets, there aren't any. As Burmeister blurts to his wife in "The Victor," when another novelist is announced the winner, "If they'd given the award to me and my little publisher and unhotshot editor and no agent or to speak of advance, half this joint would be empty next year. For the biggies pay for the event and the foundation and want returns for their own and on what they put in and certainly no threatening precedents, so they wouldn't take it nicely if the nobody from nowhere won."

Sour grapes? Sure. While there could be something to Burmeister's complaint, though, that is not the main reason for Mr. Dixon's limited reputation. It has to do with the nature of his storytelling, his fictive style -- distinctive and recognizable as it is -- that continually calls attention to itself. Here is a sample, from "Mac in Love":

I went downstairs and left the building. Coming up the stoop as I was going down it was Jane's closest friend. Ruth said "Hello,Mac, you just up to see Jane?" I said "Yes, and how are you, Ruth? Nice day out. Actually, the whole week's been grand. Some weather we're having. Just look at that sky. No I'm serious: really look at the sky." I pointed. She looked. I said "Blue as can be. And people talk about pollution. But then they also say most pollution can't be seen. The experts say that, I mean, and that what appears to be clean air because the sky looks clean doesn't necessarily have to be clean air but dirty except it doesn't look dirty because most pollutants, because of something to do with particles and refraction, can't be seen by the average naked eye. Well it's nice having the illusion if we can't have the fact. What I mean is isn't it nice that even if the air's dirty it at least looks clean? Even though it isn't, I'm saying. Or rather they're saying -- the experts.

A pure storyteller -- in the mode of John Cheever or Isaac Bashevis Singer or Peter Taylor or Raymond Carver -- Stephen Dixon is not. Nor does he want to be. That is not his aim. He is an improvisational writer and plot is generally not his interest, nor is character development, nor is epiphany nor illumination or resolution, at least not in any traditional way. Pure storytellers often want you to suspend your disbelief that you are reading fiction. Mr. Dixon continually makes you aware that you are reading fiction.

Stylistic gaming is the story, whether the protagonist is a down-and-out bum, a man bitten by a transvestite's dog, a rapist, a man who is continually beaten by his wife, a father whose daughter has been brutally killed or a daughter who has disappeared when the father leaves her in the care of a friendly woman on the beach, then denies that he ever did. Mr. Dixon doesn't so much create characters as try them on. They often sound the same. Battered husband, distraught father, rejected or rejecting lover. For it is the style that continually calls attention to itself. The effects can be tremendously comic. The stories can also be tremendously repetitive.

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