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Sunday, May 7, 2006

Short Story Collections

"I thought we had a real life anyway," writes Elizabeth McKenzie in the title story of her fiction debut, Stop That Girl (Random House, $9.95), "before my mother started over." It's a sentence that could appear in many a coming-of-age tale, but McKenzie manages to sidestep the genre's pitfalls. The central character of this "novel in stories" is Ann Ransom, the daughter of "some frat boy who danced well" and a petroleum researcher who "was said to look like Lauren Bacall." Her father is long gone, and her mother gets remarried, sending the obstreperous Ann into what she calls a "bizarre and grotesque" tailspin that culminates, in the first story, with her racing through an airport with her newborn half-sister in her arms, desperate for attention and for her sister to know who she is. Yet by the last story, Ann has a son of her own and a dilapidated basement apartment in a building on a crumbling cliff -- and is "as happy as I'd always been."

"Here we go round the mulberry bush," says a woman called Odette in "Frames and Wonders," from Janette Turner Hospital's North of Nowhere, South of Loss (Norton, $13.95). She and her lover are looking at "a man and a woman leaning close to look at a photograph which shows a man and a woman leaning close" -- "It's us, exactly," she says. "Multiple selves, anchored nowhere." The other stories in this dark and lyrical collection are similarly elliptical: Two friends (one an artist, the other a scientist) share terrible dreams of each other, a mother and daughter wonder if the previous tenant of their house ever really left, and a dental hygienist's head "is so cluttered with dialogue that bits of it leak out if she isn't careful."

There's nothing oblique about the title of Matthew Kneale's latest story collection. His characters do commit Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance (Anchor, $13.95) -- though only the quick decisions leading up to the so-called crimes are small; the crimes themselves can be monumental. A discontented lawyer discovers a shopping bag full of drugs in a suburban park and surprises himself by keeping it. A smug British family traveling in China inadvertently destroys a young man whom they suspect has stolen from them. A Palestinian man humiliated by his uncle's fatal decision to sell his olive grove to Jewish settlers must choose between life in Canada and death as a "martyr." These are uncomfortable and powerful stories of people undone by cultural forces larger than themselves.

"Bernstein lived every moment of his life in hopeful preparation for the next," writes Shalom Auslander in the opening story of Beware of God (Simon & Schuster, $13). "With half his life already over, he was running out of time to score points. From now on, every action he took and every deed he considered would be put through a thorough cost/benefit analysis of reward versus punishment." His young wife, on the other hand, "didn't mind going to the Seventh Level of Hell, so long as she could walk to the edge, look down below and see [her husband] burning in the Eighth." Religion governs Auslander's characters' lives, but not in ways one might expect. After all, stories with titles such as "Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown," "God Is a Big Happy Chicken" and, best of all, "It Ain't Easy Bein' Supremey" are not the works of a strict constructionist. In the last story, Epstein, "the Balding Junior Assistant to the Fat Guy in Accounting with the Lisp," creates a golem and becomes "Epstein the All-Powerful and Omniscient." Naturally, there's a downside to this move.

The Midwestern men in Gary Amdahl's Visigoth (Milkweed, $15.95) are sorely tempted by violence. A star high school wrestler goes mad and nearly strangles his best friend. A hockey player's girlfriend tries to play dominatrix with him, "bringing on not great desire but a terrible reflexive violence I caught and was able to turn back only in the nick of time." Two bouncers from a Minnesota club profit from a murder and must live with the consequences: "There is always the feeling that you have done something you should not have done, and that further, it had happened without warning. You were deaf, dumb, and blind, and did not know even the most trivial thing about yourself. You knew nothing, had no control, no control of any of it at all." Befuddled by rage, that's how Amdahl's characters live.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

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