Despair, poignancy, terror and hope

November Fiction

November 11, 2001|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

Although many of the stories in Peter Orner's first collection of short fiction are only a few pages long, their emotional breadth is extensive, as is their geographical range. The characters in Esther Stories (Mariner Books, 227 pages, $12) live in places as various as Nova Scotia, Chicago and New England. The things that happen to them are locally rather than globally dire, and tend to play out over decades rather than as short-term emergencies.

In "On a Bridge Over the Homochitto," for instance, a World War II veteran recalls a memory from just after his return from the war. He was recuperating at his mother's house in Mississippi when, standing one day on a bridge in winter, he saw a woman swimming naked in the river below.

His yearning for her was then made stronger and more hopeless when another man appeared in the water with her. Haunted by the ghastly images he had seen in Europe, the veteran finds himself haunted even more, over the years, by the scene under the bridge. "What you wish for and what you can never have -- both come out of the woods at the same time," he muses.

Orner tells that story in three and a half pages, yet gives it a broader scope than many longer works of fiction. Other tales here, nearly as brief, handle subjects as disparate as a pair of antagonistic Edgar Allan Poe impersonators in a small town and a New England landlord who mourns his disintegrated marriage as he dispenses with the clothing of a newly deceased tenant. The two final sections of Orner's book are devoted to tales about two unrelated Jewish families, one in Fall River, Mass., and the other in Chicago. Subtle and leisurely, many of those stories echo the stately despair of Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel.

From a more comic viewpoint, John Manderino, who like Peter Orner is a Chicago native, has written a novel-in-stories in which an ordinary guy recounts his various-and mostly disastrous-forays into the working world. In Reason for Leaving (Academy Chicago, 179 pages, $22.50), the unnamed protagonist begins as a delivery boy, spends his adolescence as a window washer and ditch digger, then morphs into a community-college instructor, a tutor of Native American teen-agers, a Zen Buddhist trainee, and finally a fiction writer. Written mostly in dialogue, each vignette is funny, and most are surprisingly poignant, highlighting just how intricately the identities of American men are tied to the work they do.

Another pair of authors, one a first-timer and the other a veteran, offer new short-story collections. Of the two, the debuting volume is the stronger. Adrianne Harun's The King of Limbo and Other Stories (Sewanee / Overlook, 221 pages, $25.95) contains tales that range from mystical ("Lukudi," wherein a Nigerian exchange student practices witchcraft to help a troubled Connecticut heiress) to domestic ("Acquiescence," which features a married woman's humiliating crush on a cello-playing bachelor).

The best story here is "The Eighth Sleeper of Ephesus," in which a father reconnects with his estranged son by writing provocative letters to the newspaper in the Pacific Northwest town where the son lives. Harun is a witty, sure-handed writer whose work shines with real originality.

The same cannot be said of Richard Burgin, whose ninth book and fourth short-story collection, The Spirit Returns (Johns Hopkins, 191 pages, $13.95), has just been published. Most of the adult characters in Burgin's book are emotionally tethered to their parents in ways that affect all their relationships, from the neglected son of famous actors who treats women contemptuously in "The Ignorant Girl" to the depressed housewife in "The Usher Twins" whose husband is as cruelly abusive as her father. Despite the many interesting variations on this theme, however, Burgin's book never quite gets off the ground; the endings feel truncated and unsatisfying, for the most part, and the emotions seem just short of genuine.

A world away, yet chillingly close to home, is Tahar Djaout's The Last Summer of Reason (Ruminator Books, 145 pages, $19). Djaout was an Algerian novelist and poet who was murdered in 1993 by assassins from an Islamic fundamentalist group. This book was found among his papers and is being published now, along with a prescient foreword by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Solinka.

In Djaout's novel, a bookstore owner named Boualem Yekker endures a bleak existence in a country newly overrun by a radical conservative party called the Vigilant Brothers, who seek to control every corner of life according to their suffocating theology. As art and literature become discredited and then outlawed, and as his family abandons him in favor of the moralistic regime, Boualem tries to resist the tide of intolerance, dreaming of the liberties of his sensual earlier years. All the while, though, his life becomes more and more terrifying, marked by violence, vandalism and death threats.

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