FRANK TUOHY is one of those literary conservationists who would no more waste a word than leave the tap running while they go answer the phone. The rigor of his prose can make quite short stories -- 36 of them in this distinguished collection's 410 pages -- seem full-bodied and not completely fathomed.
Tuohy's minimalist approach contrasts sharply with the effusiveness of, say, William Faulkner, who augmented his sentences with qualifications, embellishments, and sonorities, all designed to depict the towering passions of larger-than-life characters. Tuohy's characters are modeled more closely to life's actual scale, and his style keeps pace with the cadence of ordinary speech. He achieves forcefulness by the exactness of his observations, especially when he scrutinizes small matters that might elude other writers's notice. In "The Admiral and the Nuns," for example, the narrator evokes the tension in a household by noting, "A few minutes later we had to use force to break down the silence that had arisen."
There is an equally strained encounter in "The Trap." A not-so-young-anymore Polish woman has pursued a visiting professor back to his native England in hopes of kindling a romance. In a restaurant "he went on talking, aware that she was not listening to him so much as inhaling his physical presence. He thought of the tiny distance that divides the great peace of mutual attraction from the warfare of that which is not mutual. Now his knees were almost painfully spread apart under the little table in order not to come into contact with hers."
An Englishman of Irish and Scottish descent who has also written three novels and a biography of Yeats, Tuohy has lived in Japan, Poland, Argentina, Portugal, and the United States. Some of his best stories capitalize on his familiarity with transcultural predicaments. In "Nocturne With Neon Lights," a British businessman in Tokyo exultantly sees his wife off at the airport. Having been miserable in Japan, she is going home while he completes his year's assignment -- and dallies in the arms of Reiko, his Japanese mistress. But the new address Reiko has given him appears in Oriental characters susceptible to several interpretations, and no one can tell him where the lady lives. Mindful of the "national characteristic to accept defeat and cut your losses," he comes to the sickening realization that Reiko may not get in touch with him after he misses their rendezvous, that he's probably lost her forever.
In "Thunderbolt" the cultural differences between a shy English youth and a worldly French girl dissolve under the radiance of their mutual lust. In "Evening in Connecticut" the lesser differences between a English and an American academic snowball to the verge of combat. As the effeminate-looking American dilates on the good looks and charm of his "boy," the foreigner assumes he's talking about a catamite. In fact, "my boy" means "my son" to the American, who becomes furious when he catches on to the mistake.
The multiplicity of stories, settings, and nationalities reaches its apex in "The Potlatch of Esmeralda," in which a black Brazilian woman and a white Spanish man befriend each other in Paris. At times such intricate combinations can be so dazzling as to obscure Tuohy's artistic aims.
Often, though, the easiest way of ascertaining what an artist is up to is by examining his failures. There are few of them in this omnibus volume (which gathers three earlier collections and spans 20 years of Tuohy's work in the short story). But one, called "Windows," is instructive. To my mind it falls short because it reveals the author redhandedly forging a connection -- between two separate sightings, an ocean and several years apart, of naked women in windows. At any rate, the closing lines are telling, if tendentious: "Whatever your experiences are, it is you who choose them to make the pattern. The girls at the windows belonged to him because he was alive. The two separate visions he had been given reminded him that he was unique, and that, because we are unique, we are alone."
The same themes are sounded more subtly and effectively in several other stories. Connections are made, uniquenesses rendered. Few of us go around talking about those evanescent moments that preoccupy our idling minds: the naked women fleetingly seen or, in another story, the "tear bubbles" that "trickle slowly across" a child's eyeballs while he lies on the ground, gazing at the sky. ("I thought them to be a special private vision," the grown-up child recalls, "like angels.") By retrieving such discardable moments, by chronicling the vagaries of personal down-time, Tuohy reminds us that our terrible aloneness is, paradoxically, something we all have in common.