THE TERM "collection" doesn't fully describe this as assemblage of 16 stories. To begin with, they're divided into five titled subcollections. "Beltway" contains two stories, "Village (The Worton Series)" five, "Town" three, "The Near Country" four, and "On the Road" two.
Furthermore, explains an attendant publicity statement, the stories "form themselves" -- a reflexive that nicely disposes of any human responsibility -- "into five concentric rings outward from a center never seen." Thus may a collection of works mimic the form of a single work.
The two "Beltway" stories are the most striking in the book. Dorsey and Lucille, teenage lovers, embrace before suburban backdrops; in the first story; a shopping mall; in the second, a high-school football game. In one chilling scene, they're almost killed crossing the Beltway (whose name was never so resonant) to make love in the woods.
These stories are not about character so much as they are about class, generation, subculture. And so it is in the second cluster of stories, where the village of Worton itself stands in place of a central character. Gardiner is fascinated by groups -- by how society, apparently inelastic, nevertheless assimilates us all -- "misfit" being, ultimately, an important social role.
Worton is, or seeks to be, a placid community. But in each story a disruptive character enters and must be dealt with. Somehow, damage is always deferred: the disrupter disrupts without destroying; the community disapproves but never effectively forbids. Climactic disasters do not -- seemingly cannot -- occur, no more can enduring resolutions. Things, as the title implies, go on.
The stories in this second group, told in present-tense snippets that frequently abut with no narrative transition, tend to blur. Worton becomes like the strip of cloth, passing endlessly around two spools, that provided landscape in early movies, while a stagecoach bucked in the foreground.
It is the rare disruptive characters who stand in place of the stagecoach; and who are the most vivid people in the book. For instance, Mossie Dabney is an 11-year-old entrepreneur whose brothers are four and five:
"Mossie put her brothers in races: the chubby Handel on foot against the younger Presslie on his Big Wheel, which makes it close. You pay Mossie a nickel to bet on one of them. Then, too, she has collected some change here and there by making Presslie get under a blanket in the Harrell's pram and letting some of the girls push him up and down the road. She's taught him how to cry and then be pacified by the paying mothers."
Interested as he is in the scene rather than the actor, Gardiner can't be restricted to a single point of view. He will shuttle between people's heads within the space of a sentence. Sometimes he even tells us what none of them knows: e.g., when the teenagers drive the Beltway from one football game to another, "It might have amused them to know that as they traveled, two French horn players at distant points on the same circle were simultaneously out of step."
In the last three sections of the book, the stories are more heterogeneous. They are sometimes consecutive, sometimes chaotic, melodramatic or whimsical, expansive or compressed.
On the whole, though, we're now in a different, more traditional, fictional world. Plot becomes important; acts have consequences: change does come. Now it is often characters, not the community, who matter. Several stories are even told in the first person, though their narrators are less brain and heart than they are eye and ear.
Among the more traditional stories, "A Prior Claim" is outstanding. Dewey, a ten-year-old boy, lives with his great-uncle Ridenour. Ridenour can't control Dewey, but protects him when the police offer to put the boy in an institution.
Then treasure is found on the disused premises of a former whorehouse, and the two are bound together, albeit antagonistically, as prospecting partners. The only treasure they find is a knowledge of their independence. When, at the end of the story, it is the old man who is threatened with institutionalization, the boy protects him in turn.
In all, perhaps four of the stories are memorably strong, and several others might seem stronger in a collection differently conceived. As it stands, one's perception of them as stories alternates with one's sense that they're part of the some larger work.
Too often, that's frustrating. We approach fiction innocent of its content, but not of its form. And we know that the whole and the part are different forms -- or, rather, different universes of possible forms.
We try, as we read, to understand the form taking shape in our hands. Much of our pleasure lies in the testing of hypotheses, much of our understanding in the finally revealed truth. It is that pleasure which Gardiner sometimes wishes to withhold, that understanding to cloud.