"THE AIR SEEMED THICK and rather heavy, and time moved sluggishly." This sentence, from one of Gladys Swan's stories, comes close to describing the atmosphere of her prose. Her first collection is called On the Edge of the Desert and is one of four new books of stories just published by the University of Illinois Press. Swan's stories revolve around life in a small town in New Mexico. Like the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, the classic collection of its kind, Swan's tales are sometimes interconnected: the disgraced fire chief mentioned in "Decline and Fall," for example, turns out to have been the husband of Sibyl Gunther, another story's main character; and Sibyl Gunther reappears as a background character in "The Peach Tree."
A few of the stories in this collection are straightforward and vivid. "Ghosts" and "Rest Stop," for instance, show the benign influence of Flannery O'Connor. But Swan's work offers nothing new. Her characters are loners, losers and eccentrics who wander through the past in search of salvation, only to learn that "The world was endlessly selecting its victims, the greater and the less."
Perhaps the derivative nature of her stories would be easier to take if Swan's language were fresh and original. But the writing in this book is disfigured by a rash of platitudes and cliches that never lets up. Here is a sample of some of Swan's similes, all taken from the last 25 pages of On the Edge of the Desert: Ira Jack thinks he may absorb some of Burl Canady's grief, "Like catching a germ"; Burl thumps Ira Jack's head, "as though he would crack it open like a gourd"; "A terror seized him like a tiger and tore him to shreds. And it was as though his outward shell had cracked"; "It clung to you like glue"; "Gaunt Partner sat down with a moan, collapsed rather, like a sack of potatoes"; "Orlie's heart thumped in his chest like a wild thing butting against the bars of a cage"; "she had felt a sudden break in her experiences like a crack in an egg"; "They were all scattered like so many dead leaves"; "they moved like lightning." Gladys Swan ought to read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" before she writes another word.
Nothing sticks like glue or cracks like an egg in Barry Targan's Surviving Adverse Seasons. His work is polished and often quite moving. But one has the sense of having read it all before. The title piece, the best of the four works in this collection, is the story of Abel Harnack, a 60-year-old retired inventor who undergoes a process of spiritual rebirth after having cut himself off from life following his wife's sudden death. With the help of a middle-aged Latin teacher and amateur entomologist named Sylvia Warren, Harnack decides "he would accommodate" his grief and anger and comes back to life "with all his old vulnerabilities once again intact." This story, in its language and narrative, echoes Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker and The Human Season, both novels about older men who are resurrected from a kind of spiritual death. A more general debt is owed here to writers such as Malamud and Bellow, whose works often center on the need for accommodation to pain and reconciliation with the world.
Each of the four stories in Surviving Adverse Seasons involves two people coming to a deeper knowledge of each other. The most successful piece, after the title story, is "Kingdoms." The father in "Kingdoms" is an ex-professor on the run, who crisscrosses America in his pickup truck, accompanied by his young son, the narrator of the story. The father, who bitterly rejects his academic past after the death of his wife and the suicide of a friend, becomes something of a Mr. Fix-it. He picks up work on the road by repairing everything from cars to dripping faucets. (The theme of repair, which suggests the need for spiritual mending, emerges in this first story as one of the crucial metaphors of Targan's work.) By the end of "Kingdoms," the father has managed to teach his son a respect and love for "the fabulous amorality of life."
The two middle stories in Targan's book do not measure up to "Surviving Adverse Seasons" and "Kingdoms," although "The Rags of Time" has its moments. It's the story of Thomas Wilkins, a 44-year-old English professor whose routine life is upset by his ifatuation with one of his students. Fay Lester, the student who seduces him in exchange for a guaranteed "A" in his course, is a direct literary descendant of Nathanael West's Faye Greener and every bit as mercenary.
Jean Thompson, our third author, does not share with Nathanael West an obsessive attraction to the darker, crazier aspects of violence in America, but she does have in common with him a taste for characters and situations that seem purely and distinctly American, sometimes horribly so. The imaginative landscape of her world resembles West's: leaves hang down "like tongues," a house has "white pillars, supporting nothing," there is "a bathtub the color of Pepto-Bismol," a man whose "face rallies briefly around his black cigar," and a squirrel who tries "to drag a package of Kraft American Cheese Slices up a tree."
But Thompson's real focus is on "the killing force of love," "the old misery of colliding souls." Her stories, set in several different regions of the U.S., are often brilliant exposes of the paradoxical way love and hate combine in human relationships. Her characteristic emphasis is on couples and the effect someone or something else has on their relationships. Thompson's stories, especially the last five in this book, are intelligent, honest and technically impressive. Her insight into the cliches we live by is sharp enough to make any reader feel uncomfortable. Of these four new books of stories, Thompson's collection, called The Gasoline Wars, is without question the most exciting and accomplished.
Although she is not afraid to confront and write about the contagious emotional and physical violence of American life, Thompson's vision is by no means bleak. Her work includes a hard-won faith in the ability of people (and of literature too) to transcend evil. "Applause, Applause" ends with the most direct affirmation in any of these stories: "Now it begins, the sorting and testing of words. Remember that words are not symbols of other words. There are words which, when tinkered with, become honest representatives of the cresting blood, the fine living net of nerves. Define rain. Or even joy. It can be done."
In this same story, "Applause, Applause," Bernie, a young literature instructor, criticizes the work of his friend Ted, a writer. Says Bernie: "What you're doing . . . is making disclaimers for the piece, covering your tracks. I'll play this a little tongue-in-cheek so I won't be called to account for it." Bernie's remark could easily apply to Jonathan Baumbach's The Return of Service, a collection that is entirely tongue-in-cheek.
Baumbach's stories show the influence of nonsense literature, literary satire and experimental fiction. There is a story about a story, a parody of a detective novel, an essay on a nonexistent, ridiculous novel, a retelling of Hollywood's King Kong myth and an overall impression that Baumbach, like one of his characters, will do anything "If it seems like fun."
The stories are filled with comments that seem to be disguised clues, coy tip-offs that illuminate his work's intentions: one character remembers that his father "tended to treat words as if they were playthings," another feels a commitment "to make the story sound different," still another rehearses to himself the plot line of a movie. When the wife in one story says, "I prefer substance to style, except in films and literature," one has the distinct sense that Baumbach agrees with her.
Bookstores are stocked with an abundance of mediocre, conventional fiction and Baumbach's work seems motivated by a justified hostility to this situation, a desire to do violence to our expectations. Sometimes he is successful. The title story here is marked by control, energy and wit. But too often these stories seem merely flippant. Jean Thompson's character Bernie, the enemy of "form over content" and a spokesman for the way in which Thompson's attitudes towards fiction conflict with Baumbach's, can have the final word here: "It's like, that increased self-consciousness, that authorial presence that's always thrusting itself between the reader and the page -- see, I'm telling this story, you're reading it, I'll try to amuse you, watch this -- is rather paralyzing."