Perabo's short tales: essence of America

August 15, 1999|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | By Lisa Schwarzbaum,Special to the Sun

"Who I Was Supposed to Be," by Susan Perabo. Simon & Schuster. 192 pages. $20.

At some point in what I hope will be her long writing career, Susan Perabo may no longer choose to include information about her former glory playing second base at Webster University in Missouri in her author's bio; she's in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as the first woman to play NCAA baseball. At such time, I will have to change my metaphors of admiration for "Who I Was Supposed to Be."

But for Perabo's debut collection, a roundup of 11 rueful, funny, resonant, tender and rugged essence-of-America short stories, I feel justified in pitching all sorts of sporting allusions her way: The 29-year-old author (who teaches creative writing at Dickinson University in Carlisle, Pennsylvania) throws fastballs, curveballs, and sliders with a killer arm. These stories are nothing less than solid doubles and triples, and one or two are over-the-fence home runs.

I've run out of terminology. Perabo, however, is so full of fresh plots and free-flowing empathy for the world outside of herself that she has felt no need to anchor any of these stories around the sport she knows so well.

And this in itself is worth cheering about: At a moment in modern literary (and publishing) life where writing talent too often fizzles, starved by a blinkered imagination once the memoir has been sold, Perabo slips freely and fully into other folks' skins.

In "Thieves," the narrator is a jaded, used-up L.A. actor whose old father, come for a visit, proves to be a kleptomaniac. In "The Grace of Carlyle," the storyteller is a cynical, divorcee leading an ungrounded life in Barbara Kingsolver country -- i.e., Arizona -- who returns home to Carlisle, Ill. ("population thirty-five hundred morons") to check up on a mother who, in widowhood, has become a lottery addict.

Perabo toggles confidently between male and female narration: a woman hollow with grief following the crib-death of her infant daughter in "Explaining Death to a Dog," an adolescent girl who colludes in the death of a classmate in "Gravity." In one cheeky if marginally less successful leap, she posits a Pepto-Bismol guzzling Alfred, still picking up after Batman. What she loves in a character is eccentricity, adaptability, orneriness layered over longing. What she's especially good at is the infinitely mutable relationship between parents and children.

The publisher's publicity machinery suggests we think of their new author as following in the Pam Houston tradition. I understand the promotional thinking -- like Houston in "Cowboys Are My Weakness," Perabo is a woman who writes with a swinging, big-boned, home-on-the-range gusto that prefers outdoor settings ("like a man!") to more "feminine" domestic sensuality. But Houston is her own pioneer, and Perabo needs no categorizing.

In the title story, about a boy desperate to be someone other than the son of a pathetic, skinny, father, the narration belongs to a tormented kid, but the language is the property of a wise writer with a full heart. It's a going-going-GONE hit from a writer not afraid to step up to the plate.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a regular contributor to national magazines and critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

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