James Alan McPherson's Elbow Room has some of the choicest views in the house. These new tales by the prize-winning author of Hue and Cry include several small masterpieces of character and vignette: a barber/preacher who loses the hairshirt off his back in the Afro depression; a car repossesor with a death wish for a heart and a wickedly funny badmouth; a tourist's interminable wait outside the loo of a London bed-and-breakfast while a stubborn flushing system masters his Oriental predecessor; a scar-faced but free-spirited black Wife of Bath, whose downfall is a dude named Eldorado. and whose latler-day Jankin "couldn't see nothin' besides them goddamm books ."
Though most of the characters are blacks who speak Black English and live in black communities, these are not primarily ethnic stories. McPherson uses the immediacy of local details to undercut parochialism: a traveller from Atlanta observes that "the Japanese ain't nothing but part-time Southerners," and a Chicago professor compares Watt to "a Southern town dressed up in cement and neon and streetlights."
And this book is also about writing, the art of gathering tales and the craft of their retelling. It is "my responsibility," a speaker says, "to narrate fully," and like the narrator of the Canterbury Tales , he waves in and out of the title story, here manipulating the action directly, there stepping back to comment on it, and began retreating to the impersonal edotir's voice. In one section the narrator laments the passing good story elements and the presence of the words that "seemed to have became detached from emotion and no longer flowed on the rhythm of passion." But McPherson's own use of language, especially its rhythm, is superb. In "Why I Like Country Music," the narrator remarks that "proficiency in dance was a form of storytelling," although he can't dance. We are lucky that instead of weaving tales with his feet McPherson has chosen words. (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $8.95)
-Ann S. Haskell