ALMOST ALL the stories constituting this collection deal with characters who find themselves thrust into a foreign culture or milieu. In one a Japanese student journeys to the West to visit a poet who had been her professor many years before. Another pits an Englishman against the provincialism of small Maerican town. The title work concerns a humbly born English boy who lives in the shadow of a magnificent estate where he likes to fish. He is allowed into the upper class world through a casual friendship. The story recounts his rude awakening to the cruelty of class distinction.
Tuohy, a London writer with three previous novels, three collections of stories (one of which won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Prize) and a biobraphy of Yeats to his credit, has a fine eye for social mores. What's more, apart from eye for social mores. What's more, apart from the depiction of individual conflict, his evocations of life in varying countries can be just as illuminating. For instance, in describing the importance of education in communist Poland and the frantic competition for admission to universities, he writes, "everyone looked for a friend at court, a personal contact, someone who had the ear of an important figure, some way out of the anonymity of a classless society." The English-born central figure of another story muses that "just because things were nameless and provisional, America was curiously productive of nostalgia: you felt that when all our mistakes have been rectified the past might really return. Finding names, learning facts, you were protesting perhaps against the abstract quality of life here."
However, cross-cultural observation is really only a surface for Tuohy. In the course of these stories he uses it to dramatize the difficulty of communicating through words. Coming from different backgrounds each of his characters places a stress on language that emphasizes its weakness. Yet learning another tongue or even sharing one from the start is no guarantee of understanding. In "The Broken Bridge" Tuohy draws the homorous spectre of Japanese students speaking Tom Sawyerish English without realizing its old-fashioned character. In "Evening in Connecticut" the author pushes the distortion to absurd proportions. Amidst a party of Americans an Englishman isbombarded by private meanings that go unexplained. He is confused by a social worker who frders to her cases as her family. Later, his forgetfulness about a man's having children is taken as an accusation of homosexuality.
But this linguistic problem also has another side. The most complex stories in this collection go beyond the simple ironies of misinterpretation. Tuohy seems to have been influenced by that tradition of writers -- E.M. Forster is the most famous -- who have used ethnic contrasts to reflect on the mysteries of communication. For thisreason, however much cultural differences symbolize human isolation, they can also set the stage for forms of understanding that transcend the limits of language alone. In the story about Polish university life, "The Candidate," which is one of the most fully drawn in he collection, the denouement is brought about by an indirect set of circumstances. At the beginning of the tale, party regulars are trying to influence the admission process. But the unconscious criss-crossing of values between the younger generation of Poles who cre more about camaraderie than social position, and a liberalminded Western professor who is loath to go along with favoritism, effects a set of reversals by which just choices are inadvertently made.
At times Tuohy's stories suffer from overschematization. When an Englishman in "Nocturne With Neon Lights" tries to escape his wife for a young Japanese woman, poetic justice leaves the character frantically searching for an obscure address amid Tokyo's unnamed streets. But for the most part these stories exhibit a kind of lyrical compression that's at the heart of the form. Tuohy's strength lies in using simple situations that create a deep sense of character. In reading his best stories one only regrets that the author didn't linger long enough to develop the sense of a fuller world.