Short story revival is a joy of summer

Fiction For June


Four outstanding story collections grace the June list, a decided trend. In "Someone to Watch Over Me" (HarperFlamingo, 224 pages, $24) Richard Bausch's people are ordinary, less than appealing, and often asthmatic. In "Not Quite Final," the young wife, her elderly husband and her younger parents reflexively bicker, jabbing through generational wars.

There is an overabundance of ex-husbands and ex-wives, all lacking the imagination to see beyond their own wearying needs; most Bausch characters compulsively spoil whatever is good in their lives. In the title story, rich, well-educated Ted, and his former waitress wife, Marlee, are equally to blame for wrecking their marriage. All are mired in the personal, which is why the father in "Fatality" has no choice but to commit murder. The community at large offers neither solace nor convictions in these stark, brilliant stories.

In Jean Thompson's "Who Do You Love" (Harcourt Brace & Company, 306 pages, $23), Annie in "All Shall Love Me And Despair" ties herself to a junkie since being in love "was the most important thing to do." In "The Little Heart," Benny, 44, drives south with a 26-year-old lover ("it appalled her to think of how much she was risking if she did not keep some part of her wits about her").

Thompson is a wonderful writer. We fall for every one of her characters, from Quinn the city cop in "Mercy" to Judy Applebee in "Who Do You Love," who "knew she didn't love anyone at all." In "The Amish," a superb story, a disenchanted Vietnam vet is viewed through the uncomprehending eyes of his little girl, who cringes as he tells a crowd of demonstrators that "the children of Vietnam are not your enemies." "Forever," which closes this outstanding collection, is a detective story of psychological density; the reporter-investigator is too decent to notice the clue that reveals the identity of the killer. But the reader will.

Alice Hoffman's "Local Girls: Stories" (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 197 pages, $22.95,) is actually a hybrid -- a collection of interconnected stories in which the same characters progress in a downward spiral of misery. The girls are Gretel and Jill, who at 12 already hate "the entire adult world, which, regretfully, we were soon destined to join."

"Fate," a Hoffman evasion, proves them right: Jill becomes pregnant in the 11th grade; Gretel's mother, after a bitter divorce, dies of cancer; and Gretel's brother, despite his Harvard early admission, descends into heroin addiction and death. Even the dog runs away. No wonder Gretel decides that "people actually had very few choices in their lives. Most things happened to you. Most things rolled right over you and then kept on going."

These stories are elegantly written, with the cliches of everyday life rendered both inevitable and original. They are also brutally one-sided in their perceptions. The magic realism, which creeps into the last stories, reflects that Hoffman has written herself into one cliche she cannot redeem, that "the world was a crueler place than anyone had ever dared to suggest."

Gish Jen's collection, "Who's Irish?" (Alfred A. Knopf, 209 pages, $22), focuses on Chinese immigrants. The children are intermarrying, setting off wars that are simultaneously cultural and generational. In the title story, her astringent grandmother is upset that little Sophie is no longer Chinese "on the inside."

In "Duncan in China," a ne'er-do-well Chinese-American falls in love with "the China of the scholar-officials, the China of ineffable nobility and restraint." He discovers that China in the early 1980s "had more to do with eating melon seeds around a coal heater the size of a bread box than Sung dynasty porcelain."

Duncan meets his cousin Guotai, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, homeless, tubercular and a beggar. The government wants no part of him. Duncan will sponsor for America not his poor cousin, or his cousin's starving little boy Bing Bing, but a beautiful young girl named Lingli, who better serves his needs.

Jen's most heartbreaking story is "Chin," about a boy victimized both by his father and by his racist classmates, who decide he must have "monkey feet inside his sneakers." Jen reveals how the emphasis on national identity and ethnicity breeds fear, not self-esteem, and not pride, but a sense of worthlessness, an ugly hatred of all that is other. This courageous insight cuts to the bone and distinguishes a deeply honest collection.

Triviality of subject matter and pervasive narcissism mark too much of the fiction being published today. That distinguished publishers have put their resources behind these books is cause for lament.

"He did it" is the line on which "Otherwise Engaged" by Suzanne Finnamore (Alfred A. Knopf, 206 pages, $22) opens. What he "did" was propose marriage. Finnamore's prose occasionally transcends her preposterous emphasis on marriage as life's ambition. She describes "a long flesh-eating silence." She writes: "I baste in entitlement."

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