RETURN TRIPS. By Alice Adams. Knopf. 195 pp. $14.95.
ALICE ADAMS' reputation is as a connoisseur of contemporary American relationships, a specialist in the affairs of white, middle- or upper middle-class, well-educated, well- traveled women, growing up liberal but coming truly into their own in the self-regarding, rather humorless '70s. Her big novel, Superior Women (1984), might have been expected to stand as her definitive effort in this minor genre.
But the aptly titled Return Trips, a collection of 16 gentle, pedestrian stories, gives us more of the same, though none of the stories has the pace, the sheer gossipy pizazz, which made Superior Women a best seller. Only one, "New Best Friends," seems to me really successful. Two, or perhaps three, are moving. The rest are so studiedly insubstantial that they barely manage to lodge in the memory. It is not just that the characters are often dilettantish ("Very cautiously we began to be in love") or that the predominantly minimalist style is choked up with parentheses, qualifiers and strings of synonyms. The problem is, more profoundly, that Alice Adams's idea of meaning in human life is so depressingly tenuous. One quickly tires of so much intensity being brought to bear on so much triviality.
Yet Return Trips is not a random collection, thrown together without thought. The stories are all in one way or another about "trips," whether inward journeys of memory, imagination or desire, or real journeys to exotic places, sometimes both, as people at least try to make a little sense of their lives. "In a few years I would be as old as my mother was when she died, and I wondered what, if anything, that fact had to do with my coming back to Hilton, after all these years."
In "Time in Santa Fe," a young woman detours from a planned journey to visit an old friend. "It is mid-afternoon, on a brilliant August day, and I am sitting in a darkened bar, here in Santa Fe. I am drinking white wine with Jeffrey, an old friend who at any moment is going to tell me about his new gay life." Jeffrey does; the young woman brings him up to date on her own life; and together they cheer each other somewhat. "I . . . experience a shot of warmth, of true comfort."
In "Molly's Dog," one of the better stories, another young woman, "a newly retired screenwriter" in San Francisco, takes a weekend off with another old friend, also gay. Whilst in Carmel, Molly and Sandy walk out along the river beach. A "very nice dog" joins them, they play with it for a while, then leave. But driving away, Molly looks back to see the dog racing hopefully, hopelessly, after their car. The memory of that abandonment becomes for Molly a source of such acute pain that later she cannot think of Carmel except as "a place where she had lost, or left, something of infinite value. A place to which she would not go back."
IT IS CLEAR that Alice Adams' heroines are not in the least contemptible. They are sincere, likeable, sometimes even thoughtful people. In "New Best Friends," the best of the stories, Adams succeeds in conveying with real feeling the pain and mortification of a young New York couple in a mid-Southern town snubbed by local people whom they had believed to be their friends. The material is typically attenuated, but Adams captures convincingly the fine nuances of several overlapping relationships.
Perhaps the biggest practical difficulty with writing unironically, as Alice Adams does, about ordinary, self-absorbed people like these is keeping their ordinariness and self-absorption, their clich,e-molded dullness, out of the actual prose. Even Adams' better- educated characters can be appallingly banal, and there is very little saving sense of distance between the characters and their creator. "In bed, after a brief interval of love, Day and Allen take up their argument again. Allen believes that they should marry. In a fast-disintegrating world, a personal commitment is almost all that is left, he thinks. . . Well, Day does not see marriage as an ultimate commitment. She does love Allen, and she is true. But still. And she has hopes of being accepted at law school, in New Haven."
There is much solipsism in these stories, very little wit or joy. In the end, style and vision coalesce, creating a world of stringently limited possibilities. V.S. Pritchett has said that the short story is "the glancing form of fiction that seems to be right for the nervousness and the restlessness of contemporary life." The stories in Return Trips, however, serve to remind us that nervousness and restlessness are not themselves literary virtues.