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THE ISLAND OF THE MAPMAKERíS WIFE & OTHER TALES
By Marilyn Sides
Harmony.

LAST DAYS OF THE DOG-MEN
By Brad Watson
Norton. 144 pp. $19


Read the first chapter of Last Days of the Dog-Men

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Short Stories

By Gregory Feeley
Sunday, July 21, 1996
The Washington Post

SHORT STORIES are read (and finally judged) as individual works, but they come in collections, which possess -- if only transiently -- their own identities. We still read Hemingwayís and Faulknerís stories, but the volumes that the authors assembled -- Winner Take Nothing, say, or Doctor Martino -- are forgotten, however carefully they were arranged for balance, order of presentation or thematic unity. Yet these considerations were crucial ones when the stories first appeared. A fiction writer may range over numerous subjects and styles, but his story collection -- especially the first one -- must present a recognizable unity to readers, who are likelier to be intrigued by a distinctive voice than by the promise of variety. Recent successful collections -- Mark Richardís The Ice at the Bottom of the World, Deborah Eisenbergís Transactions in a Foreign Currency, Robert Shacochisís Easy in the Islands -- all have distinct identities and probably would have failed without them.

Such coherence may be a support or a straitjacket, which neither reader nor author is likely to know at the time. Both Marilyn Sidesís The Island of the Mapmakerís Wife and Brad Watsonís Last Days of the Dog-Men have conceits that pull the stories closer together, like kids in a family photo. The photo may have been taken to affirm the family bond, but the unsentimental reader may note that some of the kids look more interesting than others.

The characters in Sidesís stories are united in their passion for arcane collections: maps, beads, kites, Mayan pottery. Her stories, dense with learning and charged with curiosity, ably convey the intellectual excitement of mapmaking or archaeology and have moreover a kind of ontological fixity: They are engagedly, knottily about something in a way that short stories are not generally asked to be.

In the title story, the map dealerís trip to Amsterdam to pursue a set of exceptional maps culminates in a description of a superlative work by the 17th-century map illuminator Margarethe Blaeu. The map contains an imaginary island off Venezuela that the artist has added by hand: Studied closely, it proves to be a cunning piece of trompe líoeil, with the islandís contours forming the silhouette of an embracing couple. It is a lovely conceit, perhaps the best thing in the book, and the fact that Sides is less successful in linking this image with the map dealerís interest in the mapís disheveled owner does not detract from its charm. Sides is, in fact, weaker in her formal construction than in depicting the excitement of her charactersí vocations. She sometimes employs dubious tricks, such as withholding her protagonistís name or (as with the map dealer, Descotes) being heavy-handed in its formulation. In three of the four short stories, Sides rings down a conclusion with a burst of figurative language -- of smoke and mirrors, really -- that leaves the reader uncertain as to what has actually happened.

The fifth tale, "The Master of the Pink Glyphs," is a short novel about a bereaved woman who joins an architectural dig in Guatemala and finds self-fulfillment in becoming a skilled drawer of Mayan pottery. It attempts, rather daringly, to combine literary showmanship with a great deal of architectural verisimilitude, with mixed results. The early series of letters between the lovers forces Sides into a rather strained exercise in virtuosity in creating a new pet name for every salutation and signature, since she wishes not to disclose either characterís first name. The author is perhaps too much on her protagonistís side -- her ingenuousness and dedication are rather glibly contrasted with the smug knowingness of others -- and her spiritual regeneration consequently partakes somewhat of the quality of a fairy tale.

Brad Watsonís Last Days of the Dog-Men offers a much narrower aperture: His stories all focus on the relations between troubled people and their dogs -- hunting dogs, beloved pets, a troublesome stray that makes itself oneís responsibility. Such a high concept sounds like the premise for comedy, and indeed several of Watsonís stories are either droll or hilarious. In the title story, after the protagonistís wife discovers his affair, he goes to ground in an especially seedy bachelor household: "The farmhouse is a wreck floating on the edge of a big untended pasture where the only activities are the occasional squadron of flaring birds dropping from sight into the tall grass, and the creation of random geometric paths the nose-down dogs make tracking the birds.". There, dogs are used as a gauge of humansí superiority to nature, not necessarily accurately. One of the protagonistís housemates discourses on the qualities that can make a dog "no better than a dog" and not fit to come indoors, but the protagonist yearns for the "order and clarity" of a dogís life. "Humans are aware of very little, it seems to me, the artificial brainy side of life, the worries and bills and the mechanisms of jobs, the doltish psychologies weíve placed over our lives like a stencil. A dog keeps his life simple and unadorned. He is who he is, and his only task is to assert this." None of the other stories works quite so well as this one. In "Bill," an elderly woman whose husband lives in a nursing home must deal with the imminent death of their dog, for whom she prepares an enormous meal of chops, steaks and roast. "A Blessing," a story that seems to evoke Richard Ford, confronts a young couple wishing to buy a dog with a shocking act of cruelty. Both stories are affecting yet tidy in a way that the more boisterous "Last Days of the Dog-Men" is not. Watson seems less his own writer when seeking to work within the dimensions of a traditional well-made short story.

This problem shows also in "The Wake," whose protagonist must deal with a stray dog that died under his house and is beginning to decay. His problems are compounded when he takes receipt of a crate that proves to contain his estranged wife, who sent herself by UPS from New Orleans in order to have a serious talk. She remains in the box, however, and offers criticisms of him from within as he attempts to entertain dinner guests. This low-affect venture into Frederick Barthelme territory reads crisply but fails finally to resonate: We understand that a parallel is being drawn between the wife and the dog but are not sure what to make of it.

Brad Watsonís stories are notable for their verbal energy, Marilyn Sidesís stories for their curiosity and engagement with the world. Energy and curiosity are crucial virtues; literary polish can be learned. If neither writer can yet be called fully accomplished, I would nonetheless read more stories by either of them.

Gregory Feeley reviews frequently for Book World.

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