THE TITLE of Ellen Gilchrist's collection of short fiction, 2 In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, seems prophetic, for Gilchrist's success is the dreamy dream of every unknown writer. This book, her first, was published last fall and has sold some 10,000 copies, largely by word of mouth--a lot for a first book of stories published by a university press. It won for Ellen Gilchrist a large contract from a major publisher for a novel and another collection of stories. Henceforth, Gilchrist may serve as prime evidence for the optimists among us who continue to believe that few truly gifted writers remain unknown forever. And Gilchrist is the real thing all right. In fact, it's difficult to review a first book as good as this without resorting to every known superlative clich,e--there are, after all, just so many ways to say "auspicious debut."
I read all 14 of these stories in one sitting, and was only sorry to be finished. They are "traditional" stories, full of real people to whom things really happen--set, variously, over the last four decades among the rich of New Orleans, the surviving aristocracy of the Mississippi Delta, and Southerners transplanted--a step or so down in status, it would seem--to southern Indiana. The book's jacket says that the "prime ingredients" are "envy, greed, lust, terror, and self-deceit," and although these are certainly present, there is also humor and self- knowledge and love. It is more accurate to say that In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is about the stratagems, both admirable and not so, by which we survive our lives.
Even the least attractive characters become known to us, and therefore human, because Gilchrist's voice is so sure, her tone so right, her details so apt. From the opening paragraph of the first story, "Rich," we know things aren't quite what they seem: "Tom and Letty Wilson were rich in everything. They were rich in friends because Tom was a vice-president of the Whitney Bank of New Orleans and liked doing business with his friends, and because Letty was vice-president of the Junior League of New Orleans and had her picture in Town and Country every year at the Symphony Ball." Just how the Wilsons aren't so rich, however, is carefully revealed, detail by detail.
We are shown, for example, in a few perfectly selected scenes, how Tom Wilson has manipulated his way from a poor boyhood "in a small Baptist town in Tennessee" to his life in the board rooms of New Orleans, a success based on his favorite saying about money: "He had read it in the Reader's Digest and attributed it to Andrew Carnegie. 'Money,' Tom would say, 'is what you keep score with. Andrew Carnegie.' " As Tom's world slowly collapses, we see how character and circumstance converge.
In the story's most crucial scene, Tom has just beaten his older daughter, the unlovely and unlovable Helen, not so much because of the infraction of the rules at which she has been caught, but because Helen embodies what Tom has tried so desperately to control in himself: "Tom stood by the bedroom window trying to think of something to say to Letty. He kept his back turned to her and he was making a nickel disappear with his left hand. He thought of himself at Tommie Keenen's birthday party wearing his black coat and hat and doing his famous rope trick. Mr. Keenen had given him fifteen dollars. He remembered sticking the money in his billfold." That detail is so rich, so telling about the terrors of the human heart, that we are prepared to feel both horror and sympathy at the story's chilling denouement.
Nor is it just adult characters whom we come to know and care for. Many of the stories in In the Land of Dreamy Dreams are peopled with children and adolescents, and it is unusual to find a writer who understands them as well as Gilchrist does. Here is a black 14-year- old named Gus, "The President of the Louisiana Live Oak Society," having just showered in the home of his wealthy white friend Robert and about to be caught by Robert's mother, whom the boys thought had gone away for the weekend: "Here Gus came, in the baby-blue towel, black as a walnut tree in winter, draped as a tiny emperor, carrying his empty champagne glass in one hand and using the other for an imperial robe clasp. Expansively, ecstatically pleased to be, delighted to be, charmed to be alive on this, the fourteenth day of April, nineteen hundred and seventy-one; he, Gus, man of parts, friend of white man and black man, friend of oak tree, levee, and river, citizen of New Orleans, Louisiana, dope pusher to the Audubon Park, dispenser of the new Nirvana. He, Gus, five feet one inches, one hundred and two pounds of pure D Gus, walking down the hall."
Here is Rhoda, the protagonist of "Revenge," imagining what tragedies might befall her brothers, who will not let her use the broad jump pit they have built to train for the Olympic Games that will surely take place once World War II is over: "I saw myself in the Japanese colonel's office, turning them in. . . . They would be outside, tied up with wire. There would be Dudley, begging for mercy. What good to him now his loyal gang, his photographic memory, his trick magnet dogs, his perfect pitch, his camp shorts, his Baby Brownie camera.
"I prayed they would get polio, would be consigned forever to iron lungs. I put myself to sleep at night imagining their labored breathing, their five little wheelchairs lined up by the store as I drove by in my father's Packard, my arm around the jacket of his blue uniform, on my way to Hollywood for my screen test."
It would be difficult to pick a favorite from among these stories, though high on the list would be the title story, a tale of a crisis in conscience among the elite of the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club. There are few flaws here, though the ending of "Rich," with its suggestion that Helen, Tom Wilson's adopted daughter, is really his own illegitimate child, rings slightly false, and "Revenge," it seems to me, would have been better without the last sentence.
But, on the whole, reading In the Land of Dreamy Dreams reminds me that the short story at its best can be the most satisfying of genres. Indeed, the end of "Perils of the Nile" could serve as an epigraph for the entire volume. Bebber, a motherless misfit of a boy, finds the ring lost by his only friend, and instead of returning it to her immediately, hides it so he will have an excuse to go to the girl's house in order to see her mother, with whom he is in love. After bathing and dressing in his best clothes, he sets out on his mission: "Bebber walked on down the street, the rays of the setting sun making him a path all the way to her house, a little road to travel, a wide band of luminous and precarious order." In the Land of Dreamy Dreams takes us down just such a luminous and precarious path.