"THERE ARE FEW PURE moments," Mary Morris says in one of her stories. "Moments that come out clean and you carry them away with you as they were. There are moments I see clearly as if they were taking place right now. They are like a familiar face."
Vanishing Animals, Mary Morris's first collection of short stories, is a treasure chest of pure moments. A young girl, meeting her boyfriend's lonely, widowed mother for the very first time, helps her to make a sherbet sea for a watermelon boat full of melon balls. A family on a vacation trip with two rebellious adolescents falls into a funny, exasperating quarrel at a motel restaurant. A spinster warns her great-niece against sex: "Because if a man touches a woman's body, her whole body disintegrates . . . . Her body crumbles to nothing. To waste. Even in marriage, there is no escape."
These moments, related in a particularly firm and dispassionate voice, posses an eerie kind of stillness that arrests the reader's attention. It's as if every moment were sealed in glass -- or in ice. Young girls (Mary Morris' best characters) grow up in a series of halted movie frames, stopped in mid-motion, scrutinizing their worlds with uncanny concentration even as they are being scrutinized by us. Lovers are caught in a single scene that sums up their relationship; children seem remote and foreign, like observers from another planet.
There are times when the tone work against itself. "Charity," describing the downfall of a black woman servant, and "The Glass Wall," centering on life in a Mexican barrio, seem by their distance to condescend to their characters, though surely that cannot have been Mary Morris' intention. Other stories stretch too mightily toward the mythical -- as in "The Other Moon," when a woman and an Indian ride out on a long, dreamlike quest unmarked by boundaries of geography or time. But in stories dealing with the smallest details of familiar lives, everything works together: there are intimations, entirely natural and unstrained, of an echoing, mysterious world just beneath the prosaic surface.
In "Holland," a half-mad old woman invests so much value in anything to do with Holland (in a Dutch paperweight, in tulips, in a man named John Holland, in a fairy-tale version of Holland's heroism during the last war) that it colors the perceptions of everyone around her. When her descendants happen to return from her funeral via the Holland Tunnel, the reader gasps as if, in fact, Holland did have some awesome inner meaning -- as if there really were some secret code or pattern underlying the fabric of our lives.
Pieces like "Foolish Pleasure" and "On Borrowed Time" -- both accounts of modern love affairs -- have the deliberate flatness and precision of a good Ann Beattie story. They take satisfaction in inconclusiveness, in the fact that the world today is neither black nor white but a particularly interesting (even beautiful) shade of gray. People come and go, fail to commit themselves, almost touch but never quite do. "Degree or Difficulty" is particularly poignant because its young heroine, enduring her first experience with love, might well be the woman of those more seasoned and sophisticated affairs just a few years later.
The surprise of this collection is that, in spite of its subtle sorrows -- its missed connections, unspoken emotions -- there is an understated, almost comical wryness running through it. "I never knew why people in Highland Park needed a swim club when they had a Great Lake in their backyard," one character says, "but many thought the lake was dirty. This was before it was dirty." A young doctor, a racing enthusiast, "knows the blood pressure of every major racehorse, living or dead, before and after a race. This is no mean accomplishment." And look at the spinster great-aunt, growing strange in her declining years: "She refused to eat anything that was not chocolate or had chocolate in it and they had to invent the most disgusting concoctions in order to persuade her to eat something that resembled a balanced meal."
In these passages -- in the delicate click of the exactly right, coolly appropriate detail upon the page -- Vanishing Animals comes into its own. Mary Morris may try out a few wrong notes here, but the voice she settles on is stunningly effective. She is most definitely a writer to watch.