Gilchrist, Coover, Moore and more

August 23, 1998|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Early autumn and the icons of our besieged literary culture appear with fiction of the highest quality. The sublime Ellen Gilchrist offers her new collection "Flights of Angels" (Little Brown, 325 pages, $24), every story a gem. Gilchrist can bring you to tears on a dime: see "While We Waited for You to Be Born." Humor abides. So we hear from the mother of three teen-age boys: "I knew wild. I was born wild and I was still wild so they couldn't fool me, except that they were fooling me and would keep on doing it."

In a prologue, Gilchrist states her theme: "the weak destroy the strong within a family as well as in larger worlds. This happens in every family. It is as inevitable as the sun and rain."

Gilchrist knows, as she puts it in "The Carnival of the Stoned Children," that "the world was full of darkness," and that "nothing could save us from it. Not money or knowing the governor or steamship lines or medical degrees from Johns Hopkins or being on the staff of Ochsner's clinic." Because her sensibility is supremely civilized she is also well aware that "filling the world with jails is a primitive solution to our problems and doesn't seem to be solving them." This sentiment is spoken by one Miss Anastasia who at the age of 80 saves herself from rape with a Buddhist chant.

We're on the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas and Louisiana and Mississippi and the characters demonstrate the nobility of humanity, in the young, like 16-year-old Aurora Harris wrestling with whether to have an abortion or in Mrs. Woods-Landry: "for eighty-nine years she had walked the ground of the state of Mississippi and done no harm to a soul." Buy 10 copies of the exquisite "Flights of Angels" and distribute them at Christmas and beyond.

In "Ghost Town" (Henry Holt and Co., 147 pages, $22), Robert Coover presents a haunting post-modern Western combining the naturalistic conventions of the genre with speculation on who we are as Americans. His Westerner cannot "shake the feeling that, whichever way he turns, he's got somebody or something just beyond him." He encounters on the landscape of his memory cannibalism, rape and all manner of cruelty.

He dines on the testicles of his horse. "A right smarta things happen," he concludes, "but they ain't no order to em." Prairie people wallowing in nihilism, scratching for survival, are us, drifters all.

"To overstudy one's history is to be ruled by it," Coover ponders. Trust the post-modern to lapse into didacticism every time. But this ride is well worth taking.

Any short story collection by Lorrie Moore is cause for celebration and "Birds of America" (Knopf, 288 pages, $23) is no exception. Dust accumulates on the dreams of Moore's characters as people yearn to be more than they are, to have more than is available.

Moore's ear for dialogue remains infallible. In "Community Life," boyfriend Nick, who once planted a bomb, sleeps with another woman because "it's a sixties thing."

Included is the story (like most of these, originally published in the New Yorker) that some thought parodies memoir about a woman whose baby comes down with cancer ("People Like That Are The Only People Here"). For a devastating satire of pretension run amok at the ultra-chic artists' colony at Bellaggio, see "Terrific Mother."

The crisp comforts of autumn should not engulf us without "entertainments." Robert B. Parker's "Trouble in Paradise" (Putnam, 324 pages, $22.95) features not Spenser, but his equally sexy hero Jesse Stone, police chief of Paradise, Mass.

Parker's "romans policiers" are less about crime than the mysterious connection between men and women. His men feel more deeply than the women, which is fine and salutary. They're so sexy who wouldn't want to read about them?

Parker's novels are underrated for their craft, not least delicious digressions like, here, the riff on the physical attributes required to play deep shortstop in baseball.

Those with a taste for the Gothic might try Josephine Hart's "The Stillest Day" (The Overlook Press, 210 pages, $23.95). Irish novelist Hart, author of "Damage," has set this post-Victorian period piece in an English village where sexual repression leads Bethesda Barnet, an art teacher condemned to nurse an invalid mother, to a barren existence, "one foot before the other quietly tapping out the years."

Fantasy inevitably substitutes for an unforgiving reality. "Those who do not have imaginary conversations do not love," Bethesda rationalizes as she paints the face of her imaginary lover, a married next-door neighbor, onto a mirror.

A bloody, brutal act at the center of this starkly troubling novel leads Bethesda to conclude that life "is perhaps best lived as a dream." In this chronicle of masochism and repressed sadism, the twin demons overtaking the woman who defies convention, "silence and solitude" are her portion.

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