WHAT'S MOST impressive about these stories is how well they survive collection. Usually, the cruelest thing you can do to stories is collect them. A writer's idiosyncracies, charming once, lose their freshness with astonishing speed. We're nettled by mistakes repeated; repeated beauties bore us.
Yet the stories in The Bus of Dreams seem, if anything, stronger collectively than singly. Mary Morris has filled her bus not merely with a multitude of stories but with a plenitude of them.
Collectively, they display versatility and balance. Morris narrates sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, and as often in the present tense as the past. Some of the stories are set in Chicago and New York, others in Central Ameria, the Caribbean, and Europe.
They bespeak no single preoccupation. True, the central character is always a woman, and often (not always) she is concerned with a man. But to say that these stories are mostly about the love of men is like saying that bananas, bagels, and bonbons are mostly about carbohydrates.
One of the stories' graces, as a few instances will suggest, is portraiture. "Conquering Space" presents a sketch -- at once angry, pathetic, and droll -- of the narrator's domineering and compulsive father, a man who must trim the lawn every day and gas up the car before every trip, no matter how brief.
In "Death Apples," Rita, the viewpoint character, takes her mother, Mrs. Hoffman, dancing. She's struck by her mother's physical decay, then shocked when someone mistakes them for sisters. "Suddenly Mrs. Hoffman was surrounded by men who wanted to dance with her . . . . Rita watched her mother, sweating, hair stuck to her skull, nipples erect under her polo shirt, white slacks clinging to her thighs, dancing for her life."
"The Hall of the Meteorites," the best of these stories, achieves fiction's paradoxical ideal of seeming both natural and purposeful. "Before I liked men, I liked rocks," its narrator confidently begins. Between rocks and men came boys:
"I had known before that boys existed . . . But I'm not sure I understood what they were doing there. I'd always viewed them not as another sex, but as another species, as if I attended classes and went roller-skating with giraffes."
The narrator's two passions, for men and for science, are intertwined. Her first college date is with her lab partner, to see the film Superfluid, playing at the physics department.
PENT-UP ROMANTIC longing makes her envy the natural world: "The earth . . . seeks equilibrium. Volcanoes erupt, hurricanes blow, forests ignite, all so that the earth can re-establish its balance" -- just what the narrator herself cannot do.
Another strong story, "The Watermelon People," is set in Honduras. In some of her Central American stories, Morris attempts the viewpoint of natives, producing a certain romantic fuzziness. But here the focus is on tourists from the United States and the authenticity is palpable. When the gringos see a man jump off a bus, abandoning his wailing idiot daughter -- "Too expensive to keep. Too expensive to feed" -- we share their helpless pity.
These stories attain their ends not through forward movement but via many lateral expeditions. When they conclude, there is a sense less of a course run than of an assembly completed. This is sophisticated story-telling. Not always, though, does Morris pull it off. Some of her stories, intriguing in their parts, lie before us like engines shipped without the assembly instructions.
Another problem is the opacity of many of her viewpoint characters. Often she seems embarrassed about letting us know just who they are (in one story, even the sex of the viewpoint character is unclear) and what theyre thinking and feeling.
Finally, and despite the vigor of the passages quoted above, much of her language is simply limp. Too often, she settles for whatever words lie on top of the pile. She will write as many as seven consecutive sentences of the She-verb-complement pattern -- a sonata for the metronome. It's a sin for someone who can write so well to commit such utilitarian prose.
Common flaws notwithstanding, The Bus of Dreams remains an uncommon and an impressive collection. One's final sense is of the author's seriousness, her desire, her determination to tell. These stories (most of which seem, by some miscarriage of editorial taste, never to have been published in magazines) belong to no school or literary cult. They address us all. Many, I think, will listen.