Saratoga Hot. By Hortense Calisher. Doubleday. 272pp.$16.95.
If Hortense Dalisher's Saratoga Hot has any appeal, it is the the intellect, not to the heart, The seven short stories and one novella in theis collection are filled with word play, self-conscious imagery, and a number of isolated, emotionally dead-ended characters, who seem more personifications of anomie than human beings.
The selections are billed on the book jacket as "little novels." At the begining Calisher writes: "Some short works are close to the novel in spirit. They seem to try for more than the short moments of a life. They try for the life."
The only life in these works is the life of the mind. Calisher, who has published nine novels, numerous short stories and novellas and her autobiography, is certainly an accomplished writer, but Saratoga, Hot is far from her best effort. The stories ard flat, although now and then they are observant, clever of inventive. In "The Sound Track," record industry moguls o not merely abuse the language, they attack it; their English is as cheap as their spirit and as unstructured as their intellect. "So you're a kid can sing a sexy fifteen at thirteen and please everybody. No Knockers yet, even a head bow like Revecca of Sunnybrook Farm. So at fifteen you can still pretend thirteen, so at sixteen even- on the road."
Often, however, the author's style is "literary," but that alone adds nothing to the richness of a piece. In fact, it's a minus because it's so calculating it distances the reader from the essence of a story: character, setting, meaning, plot. It is merely language for language's sake. "Over there's that little crone of a child whose underfoot mewling made even the kindest grannies sit distaff-faced yesterday; now he's high-chaired and cup cheeked with an orange in his fist and a fresh wicher sprout of heart- a little king we can all try to love. The granny faces are folded chicken-sort in the morning."
That is from "The Passenger," the musings of a writer as she travels by train to New York. The narrator recalls other train rides she's taken and in the course of reminescence reveals herself. All this is a little murly; it's difficult to figure out whether the narrator, passing through life on the metaphoric train, is trying to reach out to her fellow passingers, or whether an overnight train trip is so satisfying for the writer- the perpetal observer- because it is brief, enabling her to avoid entangling alliances.
The reader feels femarkably little frusteration at the lack of clarity in "The Passinger" because he doesn't care about the characters. The same is true in "Gargantua"; its inhabitants are concepts- not particularly intriguing ones- not people. "Garguantua" is the story of a woman with ambevalent feelings about ger mother but who ultimately "becomes" her mother. The technique is adroit: the almost subterranean roar of the id, ascribed here to a huge circus animal, is played off against polite female chit-chat. But that is technical virtuosity of the most elementary sort.
Two pieces in this collection, "The Tenth Child" and the novella-length "Saratoga, Hot," are broader if scope and more successful. The former is a satire of family life and living on Park Avevue, The latter is an examination of a husband and wife- she, a crippled artist, and he, a poor relation of the gorsey set- and their relationship to a larger social milieu, the racing seasin at Saratoge.
Saratoga, Hot's appeal, then, is for the technician. Occasionally the writing is sprightly or incisive, but it has all humanity and emotional resonnce of a well- constructed double-crostic. For some readers that may be sufficient. For this reader, it is not.