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Brief Reviews

Us
Wayne Karlin
Henry Holt and Company, $22.50
Adam Begley

In his fourth novel, Us, Wayne Karlin bites off more than he can chew -- or perhaps he just asks too much of his readers. Into a short book (215 pages) he crams an alarming number of topics: the "Vietnam syndrome," the national obsession with MIAs, Bangkok prostitution, opium trade in the Golden Triangle, and Burmese folklore. He flits in and out of a bewildering array of genres: spy novel, war story, travelogue, surrealist fantasy, and down-and-out realism -- this last being the inevitable soundtrack for the exploits of macho losers like Mr. Karlin's protagonist, Jacob Loman.

Loman should be what holds the novel together. After three tours of duty in Vietnam he has settled in Bangkok where he owns a bar that caters to tourists on the sex circuit. The regulars are a sad, beer-soaked crew of American vets who never made it home. Loman sees himself in the mirror, "a big, middle-aged white man with cropped black hair and a barroom spread"; he thinks of himself as "a good and fair pimp." The girls who work for him are each given their own cubicle, and they're never beaten.

Loman is defeated, a victim of moral surrender. In the army he was a corrupt non-combatant, a supply officer with black market connections. After the war, as a kind of penance, he led jungle searches for MIAs-- fruitless excursions all. He became known as Kon Ahn Harm Kon Die, "The One Who Carries the Dead." Now he no longer believes in the myth of missing American servicemen, and in the absence of that belief sinks deep into cynical apathy. His only virtue consists in hardbitten honesty.

Us gets going when Loman is pushed into making another jungle foray. A fatuous American congressman and a ruthless ex-CIA agent with a murky agenda force Loman to trek through Burma (or Myanmar as it's now also called) to meet Aung Khin, kingpin of the Golden Triangle opium trade. Khin is supposed to help find MIAs -- but, as macho losers like to say, shit happens.

A mysterious Burmese man pops up in a hotel bar just as Loman is about to set out for the jungle. He explains to the American that "Myanmar and Thailand are mirrors to each other. . . . Each stares into a bad choice." Loman dutifully asks what those choices might be. The answer, "Whoring or deprivation," becomes a dialectic leitmotif for the balance of the novel. Loman's callow quip, "In a world of whores and beggars, the one-eyed pimp is king," reveals the distance he has yet to travel.

Other mysterious characters are trying to get Loman to meet up with Taskin, a rebel leader in northern Thailand. After sundry jungle adventures in Burma, he does in fact stumble into Taskin's camp -- and there finds "the missing." They are not MIAs, but rather the dispossessed, victims of systematic repression or exploitation. Faces painted in a garish parody of brazen harlotry, a ragtag contingent of Bangkok prostitutes cradle automatic weapons in their arms.

A reawakening of Loman's atrophied moral sense seems imminent. In one of the novel's several surreal episodes, he is inhabited by the ghost of a slain rebel sympathizer. Then spy novel collides with war story and Loman's redemption is put on hold. Unfortunately, this doesn't matter very much. I was interested in Loman but too distracted by the runaway plot to care deeply about his salvation. Doses of explicit violence combined with the convincing and nearly unrelenting threat of more violence makes Us effective as a thriller -- another genre added to the list. Despite the confusion occasioned by twists, turns and delayed revelations, the book is never boring.

Mr. Karlin writes well, especially when he avoids precious literary phrasing, as in "He passed into death between blinks." The novel is larded with clues to dimly glimpsed deeper meanings --another kind of literary pretension. In one annoying scene, the schemes of the various antagonists are acted out in a traditional Burmese dance. As one character dances the pwe, another rattles off a stylized, allusive gloss. The local color spices up the dreary business of exposition and adds a layer of teasing significance, but one can't help agreeing with Loman, who says, "Fuck fairy tales....Tell me what's going on."

There are several good novels packed into Us. The one I'm most eager to read is about Loman and his Bangkok bargirls-- whoring and deprivation. Here is a passage in which Loman wanders with a fellow vet through their adopted city. "They passed a ten-storied glass-walled air-conditioned mall set down like a spaceship or a moral choice in the squalor. Loman saw a traditionally dressed Thai woman staring at a naked mannequin in a shop window." His friend tells him, "Our wishes are wrapped in flesh. . . . That's what Bangkok is for." Here as elsewhere, Mr. Karlin's speculative sallies flow from observation of a material world simply and unflinchingly described. When I read such passages I think, yes, I will buy Mr. Karlin's next book, and hope for something more simple than Us.



The World Book
Steven Cramer
Copper Beech Press, $9.95
David Daniel

If we were sitting in a hot tub, as in Steven Cramer's poem "Jacuzzi," and a man waded in, "A man so thin, so undone,/He looked like a trembling aspen/In a flood," what would drive us to look away, "scanning our hands/For paper cuts, for sores, torn nails/Any breach in the skin, through which/The idea of such illness could get in"? So The World Book begins, scanning the "narrative/Of everyone alive who now is not," not seeking intimations of an immortal soul, but rather seeking answers to the mysteries of this world: how to attain, for instance, "the love/Required of survivors, the invisible/Grace to press against what terrifies/And restores" ("The Game"). With dignity and, at times, great force, Cramer discovers both this courage and the mature poetic style necessary to express it.

Cramer employs an abundance of metaphor and anecdote to chart his world as a survivor of his father's and his brother's death, of his mother's and others' illnesses, of the war he protested, and, finally, of his own "Appetite for loss, every bereavement/A kind of neighborhood I watch/From my attic window." Early on, this method becomes something of a mannerism. Even the very good poems of the first half of the book begin to seem formulaic: a childhood memory is related to the present, metaphors -- usually a couple -- lead to a kind of epiphany, and, as often as not, one gets the impression the poem ended just at the point where it might have really begun. No doubt this is a familiar enough form to anyone who reads contemporary poetry, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with it, the repetition of it belittles the poems and leaves them, at times, almost smug. In "The Game", for instance, the poet recalls seeing his brother rise after being "killed" in a childhood game and concluding that the soul transcends death: "(Even though, among us, it's an article/Of faith that it does not). It flares and chars/Like lit tissue; or implodes, a white dwarf/Slowly cooling inward, then nothing;/Or because we all were reared on television,/It's the silver iris collapsing in the screen." Individually these metaphors might be effective, even provocative; layered as they are, however, they become a self-indulgent digression from an otherwise beautiful poem.

The second half of the book is by far the better; the poems generally stay closer to the present, to adulthood, so one doesn't feel the poet straining to find present importance in memories that might best have been left alone. Significantly, perhaps, Cramer's diction becomes purer here; fewer and subtler metaphors create a greater sense of restraint and help to avoid the more formulaic and fanciful poems of the first half. Following the pattern of the earlier poems, the title poem begins with the poet as a child, this time with an ear ache. His father brings in the appropriate volume of The World Book Encyclopedia and explains to the child the workings of the middle ear, but "No matter how he diagrammed the ache,/He couldn't stop its throbbing." Later, in a renal ward with his father undergoing dialysis, the poet, like his father before him, fantasizes that he might "repair his faltering body.../Or at least turn up an image to explain/What brought us here." Here, though, the poem varies from the formula: The father is listening to music on the Walkman his son brought him, so that "When he falls/Asleep, it's to a music I can't hear/And for which there is no metaphor." While this may not be the most satisfactory ending, the poem does turn up the most important insight thus far in the book, and it doesn't get by Cramer: Metaphor may distort as well as illuminate. Almost all of the poems that follow are first-rate, few of them self-indulgent; in them Cramer's command of craft (evident and admirable throughout the book) and his restraint -- almost tidiness -- seem barely able to contain the force of the poems. The result is breathtaking. Not surprisingly, Cramer is at his best when the demands of the sonnet keep his rhetorical urges in check; here's "Truce":


My father wakes up choking. After midnight
The lungs his heartbeat labors to pump clean
Flood to the edge of breath. Before the flashlights
Of the paramedics brush the windowpanes,
His wife sits down beside him on the couch,
Cupped in her palm the nitroglycerine's
Glittering pill uplifted toward his mouth.
It's a routine game: she coaxes; he whines
He can't stomach more of those damn things,
Which make him sicker anyway. One last ruse
He sees through every time but never imagines
Surviving the night without, seals their truce:
In a voice more like a mother's than a wife's,
For me, she pleads. He permits her to save his life.

To capture so precisely such fugitive feelings is an extraordinary accomplishment, and it may be worth noting how subdued the writing is and how this allows for the wonderfully subtle metaphor of the flashlight "brushing," which enriches, rather than clutters, the poem.

Near the end of the book, we are, in a sense, back in the hot tub: in "After the Miracle," a friend recovering from a transplant is asked, "What does it feel like to walk/Into every moment unprotected?/ Your jeans, looser now, chafe at the scar;/Your pores open to what pleases/Or infects; reawakened nerves send up/A new coolness as your sweat evaporates." There is a suggestion, early in the book, that one might save oneself or others by avoiding the infections of one's destiny, that it might be possible, through a kind of literary technology, to provide -- as a compact disc does for his brother in "The Game" -- a static free universe. Here, however, Cramer embraces life, searches for nothing more than strength to move forward, to have children, to realize "the dead survive our praise/That shadows them, finally/To admonish us."

It is significant that the last and perhaps best poem, "Feeder," evokes George Herbert. Herbert was compelled to trim his flowery rhetoric to eliminate the self-interested extravagance of wit and learning in an attempt to humble himself before his God, leading him finally to those staggeringly beautiful, yet somehow ordinary, poems. So, too, it seems Cramer, whose religious urge is directed towards the world, is best when he humbles himself to it, when he gives over, like the friend after the transplant, to the world as he finds it and the language that rises plainly from it. At the very end of "The Feeder," Cramer has achieved the grace and courage longed for in the first pages of The World Book, as he leans out his window and carefully pours seed into a birdfeeder, "But not too carefully, knowing that whatever spills/The birds will also come across and eat."

Imaginary Men
Enid Shomer
University of Iowa Press, $22.95

Maxine Rodburg

Because short stories devote themselves to the achievement of unity -- to what Poe has called "the single effect" -- the narrator's insights must be unobtrusive. A short story writer, who works in small intense spaces, cannot avail herself of the novelist's opportunity for meditative digressions. In the literary sprint that is the short story, nuggets of wisdom -- however golden -- might trip us up as we head toward the finish line. Enid Shomer, the winner of the 1993 John Simmons Fiction Award, elegantly meets the genre's chief challenge in her debut collection, Imaginary Men.

These are tales of shifting intimacies, of the unsettling terrain that distinguishes those we call family from those we call strangers. But in Shomer's vision, those who reside in one category may cross over, and back, again and again. Eventually we fathom the limitations of nomenclature when it comes to identifying the people we need. Our feelings aren't easily fixed, surveyed, and followed in the same way each time we take an emotional step. We, and the people we love, are in constant and unmappable motion.

In fact, our conceptions and misconceptions about one category of relationship inevitably reveal the alternate category. "They trusted each other hesitantly, the way you trust a relative you've heard bad things about since childhood but who has always treated you with the utmost kindness," muses the narrator of "Disappeared," speaking of Fontane and Leila, who live next door to each other. For years these two women, one black and one white, have only come together "in crisis, like an emergency room team." The powerful borders between them are briefly undone when Fontane's young son runs away from home. The burden of time, of racial history, seems to stop as the two women near each other. At the end of the story, we know they'll retreat into neighboring separateness; still, Leila has taken Fontane's hand, "the way a magician touches and presses and smells the article of a stranger to surmise the past or the future." Although the tensions between the two cannot vanish in a wave of the fictional wand, we know there will be a next time for Leila and Fontane.

So people unrelated by blood can manage to ford the river of difference between them, however fleetingly. But so too can the strict inclusiveness of family be used subversively to stake out autonomous turf among family members. In "Her Michelangelo," the teen-aged protagonist confuses love with adoration and pays in emotional pain for her mistake. Riva Stern's family is wealthy; Paul Auerbach's is not. When Paul abandons his dreams for college, Riva turns to her beloved grandfather, who generously gives Paul what grandfathers usually only give to their own grandchildren. Pop Goldring writes out a check, without hesitation and without prying questions. But Pop's respect for Riva's privacy is anomalous within his own family. Later, Riva's mother insists on knowing why things haven't worked out between the two teens. Pop's money has shown Paul a larger world and a more elegant young girl to love, but Riva doesn't tell her mother this. Paul "probably wouldn't make a good father," she says instead. In a family concerned above all with continuity, her words are the ultimate indictment and successfully end the discussion.

The traditional divisions of generations don't significantly alter the nature of those ties that bind -- and keep binding, long after childhood ends. In "Goldring among the Cicadas," Harry Goldring (Riva's grandfather?) -- "still worried about upsetting his mother" -- must find a way to ease 82-year-old Bella and all her life's artifacts into a retirement village. Harry feels guilty: Bella "was a curator, for Christ's sake, and the apartment was a museum...." She parts with these objects dear to her only rarely, for unarticulated reasons, and expects Harry's wife Florence to value her cast-offs. But like family itself, its heirlooms are mutable, easily capable of adorning the bodies of strangers. There is no point in worshipping the false idols of clanishness, Shomer suggests. Better to chuckle. Florence won't want Bella's beloved old hat; why should she? On the day Harry concludes "his biggest deal ever," he was "feeling kingly in his household, the master of a notable destiny, when Jolie Mae walked by, dragging the Hoover and wearing Bella's mink-collared sweater over her uniform."

In "The Problem with Yosi," one of the collection's most lovely stories, the distinction between family and community is enlarged institutionally, with poignantly comic results. The setting is an Israeli kibbutz. A 32-year-old man, long given up as unmarriageable, has suddenly "touched the breast" of a woman named Naomi. The other kibbutzniks deal with this worrisome event by sending Yosi to an "appropriate prostitute" in Tel Aviv once a week. Exactly what goes on in Tel Aviv no one ever learns, but what we are told sounds closer to love than contractual sex. The kibbutzniks are at first mystified, then envious, and finally angered by this possibility -- that they should pay money not to avoid communal trouble but to insure Yosi's singular pleasure! A young woman named Sharon (born in America, she thus stays a technical stranger) slyly finds a solution. After she reports that Yosi has resumed and increased his molestations, the kibbutzniks decide, for the sake of avoiding terrible scandal, to send him to Tel Aviv twice a week. Later they congratulate themselves "on the wisdom of their solution. Solomon himself could not have done better."

But the real accomplishment is Shomer's. She never forces us to choose between the twin challenges of her genre: to keep the short story moving steadily forward and yet assure that its reading, after all, will be more than a race to the end. We never stumble on nuggets of wisdom during these eleven well-paced tales. Instead, we win enough time to savor their rich veins of wisdom.


Trilce
César Vallejo
Translated by Clayton Eshleman
Marsilio Press, $28.00 (paper, $14.00)
Don Share

A good translation, Willis Barnstone says in his "ABC of Translation," is a good joke: the reader is fooled. Anyone attempting a version of César Vallejo's monumental Trilce requires a nearly Joycean erudition and sense of humor to succeed. The book, published in 1922, is composed of what one translator, Rebecca Seiferle, calls reinvented Spanish: "neologisms and puns, incorrect orthography and grammatical constructions, invented and altered idioms, unconventional capitalization and typography, verbs without subjects, pronouns without referents, modifiers without nouns to modify." Yet Vallejo is not merely committing modernist or surrealist barbarismos against his native language. When in a poem for and about his family, he describes his work as "pulling/one braid for each letter of the primer," Vallejo actually seems to be writing backwards, delving beyond the modern West into his Peruvian heritage for inspiration: his Inca ancestors, who had no written language, recorded important information using groups of strings called quipus, on which various configurations of colored knots were tied.

One thread that runs through Trilce is what Julio Ortega calls "the systematic subversion of codes, forms, and habits." Consequently, casual perusers might not get past the book's elusive title and a flip through its strange-looking pages; yet those who love the sound, feel, and mystery of words will keep going. There are always diligent readers who enjoy struggling with difficult works. As Marianne Moore observes (thinking of Pound's obscurity in the Cantos), flame kindles to the eye that contemplates it. Moore's great tact also allowed her to see that when an artist "is willing that the expressiveness of his work be overlooked by any but those who are interested enough to find it, he has freedom in which to realize without interference, conceptions which he personally values." Trilce, as a record of Vallejo's struggle for that freedom, is a knotty work. Fortunately, Clayton Eshleman's translation recreates the challenge of the original, yet provides just enough supplementary material to ensure that any reader can proceed unthwarted.

The book begins:


   Who's making all that racket, and  
 ot even leaving
testation to the islands beginning to appear.
   A little more consideration
as it will be late, early,
and easier to assay
the guano, the simple fecapital
  ponk...

Eshleman wryly notes that it is "extremely useful background information" to know that Vallejo spent 112 days in the Trujillo jail: when prisoners were taken to to use the latrines, guards shouted at them and reviled them to make them hurry. This explains the racket, the ubiquitous Peruvian guano, and even the compound adjective, "fecapital" -- the original word is based on a combination of words for treasure and excrement; but "ponk?" Eshleman's notes, which always reveal his solutions and compromises, explain that the word Vallejo used is an archaic term for an immense, intolerable stench; hence its translation into a similarly archaic English expression, which is, I find, in the supplement to the OED. At this point, one might suspect that poet and translator are elaborating some kind of joke. Yet the reader who holds out for a few pages will find this arresting poem:

The grown-ups
--when are they coming back?
Blind Santiago is ringing six o'clock,
and it's already pretty dark.
Mother said she wouldn't be late.
Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel,
be careful going around there, where
stooped souls in torment
have just passed twanged their memories,
toward the silent barnyard, and where
the hens still getting settled,
had been so frightened.
We'd better stay right here.
Mother said she wouldn't be late.
We shouldn't fret. Let's keep looking at
the boats -- mine's the nicest of all!
we've been playing with all day long,
without fighting, how it should be:
they've stayed on the well water, ready,
loaded with candy for tomorrow.
So let's wait, obedient and with no
other choice, for the return, the apologies
of the grown-ups always in front
leaving us the little ones at home,
as if we too couldn't
go away.
Aguedita, Nativa, Miguel?
I call out, I grope in the dark.
They can't have left me all alone,
the only prisoner can't be me.

There are many such poems which, though linked to others in the book, stand on their own, and need few notes. Vallejo spins meditations that bob daringly in and out of the conventional use of language in poems on jail, memory, family, and relationships with women (including one woman he impregnated and refused to marry, and one who offered herself to him in a dark room, where they remained for weeks invisible, yet tangible to each other!), and these are astonishing whether you read the notes or not.

Trilce is grounded by the recurring jail-poems; as he reflects on his imprisonment, Vallejo finds that he is also confined by the predeterminations of family, sex, and language: "However I imagine my life/or imagine not having yet been born,/I will not succeed in freeing myself." Yet language, which makes memory possible, if not inevitable, is simultaneously forbidding and attractive: "It frightens me, this permission/to return by the minute, across exploded bridges." Vallejo makes the most of this "permission," through which freedom just may be possible: even in the gloom of imprisonment, he finds a "cracked lantern" emanating light, hanging "like an asterisk begging/from itself who knows what emendations," as if not only his language, but his very life, with all its insatiable urges, freely brims and overflows as it is written and rewritten.

Translating requires as much character as skill and good fortune. Eshleman's work-- he's been translating, absorbing Vallejo for years -- is scrupulous, and it is no misadventure. Eshleman has passed through any number of trap doors in attempting to translate this unusual work, but the resulting English text not only survives, it flourishes on the page, and is thereby faithful to the spirit, sometimes even to the letter, of the original; or as Barnstone would say, I was fooled. I did have occasional reservations since his locutions, for better and worse, are loudly Poundian: as Hugh Kenner said of Pound, Eshleman "adapts the norms of English poetry to the original," even if this results in some distortion (by contrast, as Ortega points out in the introduction, Vallejo's neologisms sounds almost natural or idiomatic in vernacular Spanish). Yet precisely because Eshleman is more likely than many to take chances-- which he does in his own work, and which could have been a liability had he been translating another kind of poetry -- he just might be the best translator we could wish: Vallejo, after all, was himself a maverick. (Rebecca Seiferle's insightful yet more subdued version is available from Sheep Meadow Press.)

Trilce remains sui generis -- even Vallejo never attempted such writing again: the book fell into a void, and no other book of his poetry was published in his lifetime. Américo Ferrari concludes that Vallejo's path of liberation was a cul-de-sac with the poet's silence for a dead end. Indeed, at one grim moment, Vallejo confesses, "I seek myself/in my own design which was to be a work/of mine, in vain: Nothing managed to be free." But the book is still open on that. Unlike the quipus, which the Spanish destroyed, seeing them as products of an inferior culture bearing insufficient resemblace to any recognizable language, Trilce is still with us, and has yet to be unraveled. As Eshleman suggests, what remains to be done is an evaluation of Trilce which sets Vallejo in the same sphere as "modernists" like Eliot, Mayakovsky, Rilke, and Apollinaire, but which also indicates the range of his book's trajectory "from a poetry unique for its time to a poetry that in certain aspects is still a bit beyond what English-speaking readers can understand and assimilate today."

The Flight of Andy Burns: Stories
Alice Mattison
Morrow Press, $20.00
Debra Spark

Home to Yale, New Haven is alternately associated with all that university symbolizes -- the prestige and glamour of the best of American higher education -- or with the appalling poverty, unemployment and violence that makes the city one of the most destitute in the nation. Alice Mattison's second book of short stories, The Flight of Andy of Burns, is primarily about the New Haven that eddies, like a river, around the stones of these two communities. It focuses on the white, mid-life liberals who own stores, volunteer at soup kitchens and prisons, raise children, and take walks around the fringes of the better-known New Haven.

As in her earlier novel Field of Stars, Alice Mattison's stories are often concerned with the subtleties of female relationships, particularly in the face of an unsatisfactory male-female relationship. In "The Great Blue Heron," the narrator Jo, her son Terry and her ex-mother-in-law Nina spend a holiday week in Maine. Long divorced from Mark, Jo has nonetheless stayed friends with his mother. Jo recalls a conversation with Nina after the break-up: "`I've always liked you, Jo,' Nina said when Mark and I separated. `I'm afraid this might be Mark's fault.' I didn't think she might mean that Mark had done something wrong. I thought she might mean he was boring."

During a boat ride on a lake, Nina reveals that Mark is going to marry his current girlfriend, Sarah. Jo is momentarily pained by this, but the feeling passes until the end of the story, when Nina and Jo are rowing back to shore. After a brief, but unfounded scare that something might have happened to her own son, Jo disembarks from the boat. With her son in sight and her ex-mother-in-law standing next to her, Jo closes the story with these words: "With a golden, fierce intensity that I hugged close, because I might never feel it again, I objected to the marriage of Mark and Sarah. He was my husband. I had his mother and his child. I could stretch my arms wide and put a finger on each end of Mark's life."

In this story -- as in the lovely stories "Liberty Apples," "Raymond and Leona," and "The Giraffes" -- Mattison is particularly deft at the portrayal of friendship, the redemptive character of small generosities. In "Liberty Apples," the story's narrator admires her friend Julie, who is sitting, teary-eyed, on the floor and considering George, the man who recently broke up with her.

"You look pretty, sitting on my floor," says the narrator. And adds: "I think I'll keep you as an ornament."

"I'd make a good paperweight," Julie says.

Later, when George shows up at the orchard stand where Julie volunteers on Saturday mornings, the narrator has a silent urge to protect Julie that is one of the strongest moments of the collection.

Mattison's stories are always visually precise, tightly written and drily humorous, but her real strength is in rendering brief, intense emotional moments. These moments rarely consist of a stunning realization about another person (although there are a few surprises in the book), instead they are occasioned by a simple observation about another person, a perception that redefines a character's sense of life's possibilities and limits. After a frustrating bickering with her husband, one woman concludes: "It was a terrible mistake to marry Robert, for he is not perfect, and she will have to pound him with her words and tears so many more times before she fixes him, so many hundreds of times."

Because Mattison's strength is in the power of subtle perceptions, a few of her stories can seem slight, an impression reinforced by the overall quietness of her voice, the lack of pyrotechnics in her writing style and the occasional attendance to minutiae. Preparing for Halloween, one narrator needlessly tells us, "I made a jack-o'-lantern and bought those short thin pretzel sticks to give out (not too much sugar), and the night before Halloween I spent an hour putting handfuls of pretzel sticks into plastic sandwich bags and twisting the tops closed, hoping the local parents wouldn't mind that I'd handled the treats. I prepared forty bags."

Although Mattison's skills at observation may be frustrating when they're turned to snack food, they are most often turned to more satisfying material. Still, there are enough moments when she does describe the inconsequential that the stories, considered together, feel somewhat light. Part of the problem may be that Mattison alludes to dramas taking place in New Haven, but then she doesn't tell those stories. For instance, in "Body of a Snake," a story that takes place in a soup kitchen, Mattison introduces characters who are fascinatingly deranged and potentially violent. The story turns on a bit of dialogue in which a man, who says he has met a woman with the body of a snake, wonders how the snakewoman could be "so emotionally normal." While this conversation is compelling and ends up being the metaphoric center of the story, the majority of the story is taken up with details about sausages in the spaghetti that is being served at the evening meal. While not irrelevant, these details keep us from the more obviously interesting story.

Mattison has several stories which take place in a New Haven prison and these stories are not entirely successful because, as in "Body of a Snake," the tension between the story that is told and the story that is left untold is too great. In her many stories about friendship and romantic relationships, however, Mattison's attention to detail, soft voice and unornamented prose are strengths rather than weaknesses. This is especially true in the wonderful title story and in "The Winding Stair." Both are apparently simple stories -- one about a dinner party, one about revealing a sexual transgression -- that gain their power, and indeed, something like transcendence, from a single, fleeting image that closes the story.

At the end of another story, "The Landlord," the narrator notes how a "modest sixty bulb" makes a difference in the light (presumably literal and metaphorical) in a room. Much the same could be said about Mattision's stories. In their very modesty, they seem significant, even as other more glaring, but perhaps ultimately less revealing, dramas play themselves out in the city that surrounds Mattison's characters.

Originally published in the June-August 1993 issue of Boston Review



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