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Fiction Roundup

By Hart Williams

Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page X04
The Washington Post BOOK WORLD

Bingham mistakes chaos for storytelling, freakishness for humanity, and drug abuse for psychology. Though obsessed with "spectacle" elements, the stories go nowhere, say nothing, and never peer beneath the superficial veneer of a television actor's portrayal: two-dimensional dots flickering on a faded screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This eye never sleeps



THE MAD DOG
Stories. By Heinrich Boll
Translated by Breon Mitchell
St. Martin's. 164 pp. $19.95

It is not unusual, when a master dies (Heinrich Boll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972 and died in 1985), that whatever might have been left lying in "the trunk" is cobbled together and released. This process tends to produce spotty results, but here nearly every story is superb, and one wonders why they never saw print before. The answer is supplied by the translator: "These tales may well have seemed too bleak for German publishers in the immediate aftermath of the war."

The novella "Paradise Lost" (Mitchell calls it an "unfinished novel" ) is magnificent in its own right, following a German soldier who returns from the war to his ruined hometown in search of his sweetheart. Boll's ability to fuse metaphor and story is masterful: "He thought he'd possessed her, possessed her so thoroughly he could never lose her, so much so, so strongly that he was afraid to return. Now he understood how senseless and silly he had been to believe that. He knew nothing about her, nothing he could call his own. He might as well dip a pail in the ocean and claim he owned the sea."

Many of the stories are filled with the Second World War (in which Boll was wounded four times with the Wehrmacht). A German soldier in Paris finds refuge in the apartment of a French soldier's wife; a refugee from the Gestapo waits for dark in the home of a nervous pastor; a doctor keeps vigil with a priest over the corpse of a veteran who had returned from the war a monster; an engineer carefully rebuilds a shattered bridge only to destroy it on completion. Boll's sensibility about the surreal human landscape of war is hauntingly familiar and yet alien: He was on a losing side.

This collection is not merely an executor's odds and ends, but an important one in its own right, and finally, deservedly, seeing the light of day. The depth of Boll's vision into the human soul can be breathtaking.

PURE SLAUGHTER VALUE
By Robert Bingham
Doubleday. 194 pp. $21.95

RECENTLY on "Nightline" there was a story about a man who kept himself alive in the killing fields of Cambodia by telling his captors, night after night, stories from Aesop. Somehow, these simple, ageless tales had been the difference between life and death for this modern Scheherazade.

By this standard, Bingham would not have lasted a single night. "The Other Family," which first appeared in the New Yorker, is a prime example. The "protagonist," Tom, learns that his cousin, Drew, has died of an "overdose" (after long, meaningless meandering about Drew's bong and marijuana smoking). Tom attends the wake, where he plays footsie with his cousin Jean, and, perhaps, is offered the opportunity to have sex with her. If, in the midst of utter amorality, a "moral" point is being made, it stretches the credulity of the reader to find it. When Jean finally mentions needles, we presume that it was not marijuana that Drew died of, but this sort of confusion reigns throughout the story and the book.

In "This Is How a Woman Gets Hit," a drugged couple have a paranoid fight -- for no apparent reason, and with no resolution. In "The Target Audience," a 31-year-old corporate lawyer at an airport recognizes a prissy girl he went to high school with; she still has a pellet in her leg from when he shot her, which sets off the metal detector as she passes through. She is now corrupt, he is now respectable and they will probably have sex.

Bingham mistakes chaos for storytelling, freakishness for humanity, and drug abuse for psychology. Though obsessed with "spectacle" elements, the stories go nowhere, say nothing, and never peer beneath the superficial veneer of a television actor's portrayal: two-dimensional dots flickering on a faded screen.

NORMAL
Stories. By Lucia Nevai
Algonquin. 217 pp. $17.95

THE PREMISE of these stories -- that there is no such thing as "normal" -- is perhaps the best thing about this collection; at least it is coherent.

What we are presented with is a series of stories of freaks, of carnival side-show curiosities, which, the author seems to assure us, are "real life." And yet there are no changes in the characters: They do not alter, they learn nothing; they merely have an occasional "peak" experience.

In "Close," a suicide counselor flies to her brother's funeral in Indiana, where no one in the family lives anymore. In "Belief," a pubescent girl engages in self-mutilation at a church camp in Iowa. In "The Talking Woman," a Michigan salesman sees a woman die on a Grand Canyon rafting trip -- but is utterly unmoved. "Me, Gus," the best story in the book, is a first-person tale about a New Jerseyite who is learning type design in New York City to better his station in life. But even Gus doesn't really learn anything new.

Nevai, as with Bingham, mistakes grotesquerie for story, drugs for psyche, and sophomoric irony for epiphany. Sadly, in so-called mainstream literature of late, Normal is normal.

ALL AROUND ATLANTIS
Stories. By Deborah Eisenberg
Farrar Straus Giroux. 244 pp. $23

IN READING these stories, I am reminded of Alice's encounter with the Cheshire Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," the Cat replies to Alice's query about which road to take. "I don't much care where," Alice replies, and the Cat rejoins: "Then it doesn't matter which way you go."

These tales lead nowhere. The "best" of the stories is the first, "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor," in which teenaged Francie is called to the principal's office at an exclusive girls' school to learn her mother is dead. She learns that her father is not dead, after all, but living in New York City. She ends up sitting in her father's apartment, waiting for him to arrive. At the conclusion of the story we actually know less about Francie than we did at the beginning. That which has passed between consists of Eisenberg's florid, overwritten style, her desperate groping for "poetic" metaphors and descriptions, and the infusion of ersatz wisdom -- more rambling than writing.

There is something narcissistic in this sort of writing, which apparently aims never to please the reader, only the writer. From the internal evidence of "Across the Lake," "Someone to Talk To," and "Tlaloc's Paradise," the author vacationed in Mexico, while her other stories indicate that she has spent a great deal of time in New York City.

But one cannot question her choice of words; since she is headed in no direction, it makes no difference what she writes: "Sometimes at night when you had to turn it [the TV] off, you could feel the world seeping out from the blocked screen -- the hot confusion of laughter, the footsteps pounding like a giant, besieged heart, the squealing tires, the eruptions of gunfire. . . . " In a meandering passage about a pre-pubescent girl, this passage has nothing to do with a real girl's thoughts: It is entirely meaningless, a non sequitur within a non sequitur.

THE LIFEGUARD
By Mary Morris
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 181 pp. $21.95

MARY MORRIS seems to have a microscope trained on the souls and hearts of mankind. The Lifeguard is a superb collection -- with only a pair of tales failing to make any sort of sense (perhaps to be fashionable), and a disquieting tendency to have at least one character in each story upset at someone's "spiky" hairdo.

In the eponymous tale, a cocky young lifeguard comes face to face with wisdom and mortality. In "The Wall" a new wife faces a garish mural that her husband tells her not to paint over, though she may change anything else in the house.

These are often deceptively simple tales, but each is filled with a deep insight into what makes people tick -- the realities of human nature amid the freakishness of the modern world, and not the freakishness of cardboard characters at the fin de siecle. There is such a deep and clear vision of the human heart, that, though Morris moves in the same milieus as three of the other authors discussed previously, it is not the same world.

In "The Lure" a long-estranged father and son spend a Thanksgiving avoiding one another; the grown son has never forgiven the father for remarrying after his mother's death: " `I guess you miss her.' He wrapped his fingers around her fingers. `No,' he spoke softly. `I miss him.' "

The stories linger in the air long after the book has been filed away; Mary Morris is a magnificent writer.n

Hart Williams is a writer in Eugene, Ore. His award-winning web page can be found at http://www.efn.org/~hartw/index.html.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
(copyright reverted to author 90 days after publication)


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