Henry Holt and Company, $22.50
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
Copper Beech Press, $9.95
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
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":
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.
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.
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
University of Iowa Press, $22.95
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
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.
Translated by Clayton Eshleman
Marsilio Press, $28.00 (paper, $14.00)
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:
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:
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
--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
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
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
Morrow Press, $20.00
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
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
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