ELLIS ISLAND AND OTHER STORIES. By Mark Helprin. Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence. 196 pp. $10.95
BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN AND carefully structured, Mark Helprin's Ellis Island and Other Stories is one of the best collections of short fiction I've read in a long time. In "A Vermont Tale" the narrator and his sister are going to spend "an entire frozen January" at their grandparents' in Vermont. The language, the details Helprin selects freeze, preserve that month forever. The journey begins at Grand Central in the "strong, sad light which descended in wide columns to the floor." On the train to Vermont the conductor's watch chain "across his girth, signified the route between Portugal and Hawaii." Vermont is a world of deep snow, of trees "standing on the hill like a dumbfounded herd," of sweet fires in the house," and "a dark antique scent from chips smoldering under hanging meat and fowl" in the smokehouse. Evenings are spent listening to an old radio that "brought in a classical station which sounded so far away that it seemed to be Swiss," and reading "dentist-yellow National Geographics," and listening to the grandfather who tells the story of two Arctic Loons who have returned to the farm after years of absence: "My grandfather leaned forward as if he were about to enter communion with the blazing fire . . . and he mesmerized us as if we were a jury and he was a great lawyer of the nineteenth century." By the end of "A Vermont Tale" the reader discovers with the narrator that the grandfather's story about the loons is also autobiography, revealing a good deal about the wider world beyond. "Remember," the grandfather says as he begins his tale, "we have our idea of angels from the birds."
In much the same way that the grandfather mesmerizes and reveals, Helprin creates strange magical worlds. His rich textures alone would be enough to delight a reader, but there is more: wonderful stories, richly plotted, inventive, moving without being sentimental, humorous without being cute. In "The Schreuderspitze" a man lost in grief becomes obsessed with climbing to the peak of the Schreuderspitze and eventually transcends reality in a mystical ascension that returns his life to him. "Letters from the Samantha," told in the form of letters recovered from a sunken ship, is a haunting tale about a sea captain who saves an ape from a typhoon and then must bear responsibility for his action. The title piece tells the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York at the turn of the century who survives by assuming different identities. He discovers a new world limited only by the limits of his imagination. Such a character in Mark Helprin's hands becomes a celebration of the transforming power of imagination. A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION. By Joyce Carol Oates. Dutton. 196 pp. $11.95 THE CHARACTERS in Joyce Carol Oates' latest collection of stories are all victims of their passions and obsessions. Led so strongly by desire they have-few choices, they follow demands of their various passions and suffer the consequences. In "The Precipice," a likely title for a fore-gone conclusion, Wesley is in the hospital recovering from a beating. He and a fellow patient quote Pascal: "'Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.'" They might be speaking for all the characters in this book. The beating Wesley has taken is not his first, and the reader knows it will not be his last, each the result of his inability to walk away from a fight, an "imbalance."
In "The Tryst" John Reddinger boldly, foolishly, impulsively brings his lover to his house while his wife and children are gone for the afternoon; he faces this act's bloody consequences.
For Eleanor Gerhardt it takes nearly 30 years for the result of her passion to catch up with her, but catch up it does; she spends the longest night of her life facing her past.
In the title novella the obsession is a developing sexual desire between 19-year-old Duncan and his 14-year-old cousin Antoinette. The novella length provides Oates with the opportunity to develop fully the relationship between Duncan and Antoinette. Through careful pacing and the use of shifting points of view, a relationship which seems unnatural becomes believable, and the terrible result of that relationship becomes inevitable. The voices Oates creates are so vivid and true, the story moves so smoothly that the reader experiences the apparent paradox of all good writing -- the contrived artlessness of a good storyteller. Duncan's and Antoinette's passions lead to the novella's violent end, which the reader experiences with a physical intensity heightened by empathy for both characters established by Oates' use of point of view. I will not easily forget the consequences of Duncan's and Antoinette's desires. Those consequences will haunt me as they will haunt Duncan, whose mother says "half-scolding, 'You'll regain your appetite. You'll be able to sleep. Wait and see." "And Duncan replies, "in a soft, distinct, rather dignified voice, 'I don't think so, Mother.'"
In A sentimental Education Joyce Carol Oates continues to make the impulsive often violent lives of her characters vivid and meaningful. 14 STORIES. By Stephen Dixon. Johns Hopkins. 145 pp. $9.95 MOST OF THE STORIES in Stephan Dixon's collection are shaggy-dog stories. There are few resolutions. The book presents a Rube Goldberg fiction in which elaborate diagrams become the ends rather than the means. Sometimes there is great pleasure in watching Dixon invent, juxtapose, make connections; sometimes I wish there were more beneath the surface.
There are 13 stories in the book. The title story refers to the 14th story of a hotel in which a man named Eugene Randall commits suicide, and the title suggests the many other stories we glimpse because of this one story, the many lives touched: the hotel maid who hears the shot, the lovers who find a suicide note that blew out of the window, the boy on the roof of a nearby building where the spent slug falls, the boy's neighbor who calls the police, the boy's mother who meets the neighbor who asks her out, the hotel operator who relays calls about the suicide, etc. The point of this and other stories in 14 Stories seems to be the odd cause and effect relationships connecting so many things in the universe -- simultaneity, coincidence, chance. c
Dixon is aware of the possibilities of language; his prose is flat, clean, wry. At times he overdoes jokes, at times he extends word play until it becomes predictable, as it is in "Milk is Very Good for You" and "Names." A good deal that could have been comic in 14 Stories strikes me as too obvious, too heavy-handed. The stories that do work, especially "Love Has Its Own Actions," "Cut," and "The Security Guard," do so because their deeper implications are subtler and resonate longer. THE LONE PILGRIM. By Laurie Colwin. Knopf. 211 pp. $9.95 THESE STORIES ARE usually wealthy, properly-raised young women and their decisions to have love affairs. The stories are told in blocks of narrative generalization, lists of domestic details, long expository passages and overtly thematic statements. The descriptions are almost interchangeable and consist mainly of adjectives such as pretty, faunlike, boyish, curly-haired, lithe, beautiful attractive, and rich. The characters are as superficial as the stories are predictable. It is difficult to feel any compassion for them; they are self-absorbed and amoral. It is likewise difficult to feel too much disgust for them; they are one-dimensional and unbelievable. The following, from "A Mythological Subject," is a typical scene:
"They got along famously. My husband and I looked down from our opposite ends of the table flushed with the vision of a successful dinner party. How attractive they all looked in the candlelight! Joseph, who was large, ruddy, and beautifully dressed sat next to Miranda. They were talking about Paris. aMiranda wore her reddish hair in a stylish knot. She was wiry and chic and smoked cigarettes in a little black holder. Nellie sat next to Dan. Her clothes, as always, were sober and she looked wonderful. She had straight ashy hair that she pulled back off her face and hazel eyes full of motion and expression. Dan who sat next to her was her opposite. As Nellie was immaculate and precise, Dan looked antic and boyish."
Nellie (married to Joseph) has her affair with Dan (married to Miranda) and by the story's end confesses to the narrator. The narrator confesses her own adulteries and Nellie, pacified, naps while the narrator muses: "It would be exceedingly interesting to see what happened to her, but then she had always been a pleasure to watch."
The better stories in The Lone Pilgrim, "Travel," "Delia's Father," and "A Girl Skating," suffer, only to less extent, from the same superficial treatment and sentimental excesses as the rest of the book.