HONEYMOON. By Merrill Joan Gerber. University of Illinois Press. 126 pp. $11.95; THE CHRISTMAS WIFE. By Helen Norris. University of Illinois Press. 136 pp. $11.95; GETTING TO KNOW THE WEATHER. By Pamela Painter. University of Illinois Press. 117 pp. $11.95; TENTACLES OF UNREASON. By Joan Givner. University of Illinois. 134 pp. $11.95.
IT'S HARD to choose a favorite from the four neat volumes of short stories newly published by the University of Illinois Press. This distinguished series has given us, in 10 years, short fiction by Robley Wilson Jr., Gladys Swann and Russell Banks, among others, bringing to the attention of a wider public writers who had published mostly in small magazines.
The nine stories in Merrill Joan Gerber's Honeymoon draw their strength from vivid imagery. In "At The Fence," a woman tormented by the barking of her neighbor's dog solves the problem by turning the dog loose: "She doesn't breathe as she sees him pause, tense, and then leap in a single bound over the horizon. At that moment she realizes she has forgotten to climb upon his back." The use of the present tense is the bane of modern short story writers; however, Gerber's sharp observations escape this limitation.
In all nine stories, there's an underlying bleakness: "At first, being with Rand had given her a thousand new thoughts and feelings," the young wife in "Honeymoon" thinks, "but now she was having no new ones. Like everything else, it had gotten old -- and she had only married him yesterday." Later, she is surprised to find herself in tears: "She didn't know she could act this well; at least she thinks she's acting because she didn't know she felt this badly." But this perennial sadness is checked by the brightness of words: another woman thinks of her mother, "Her face is like sunlight to me -- I cannot look at it too long. It shocks my eyes . . . "
Helen Norris' The Christmas Wife has a smoother tone. In its most brilliantly imaginative story, "The Love Child," an old woman is given an unwanted little boy to raise. He is no trouble at all; in fact, he never speaks: "When she made a request a kind of pale hardness, translucent like porcelain, would appear on his face. His mouth would move slightly as he pulled on his lip. He seemed to be asleep. But he always obeyed." Finally she realizes that he has been passed from hand to hand for so long that "in four years of life he'd learned a terrible thing. Something it had taken her a lifetime to learn . . . You give yourself to others and they take your bits and pieces and you disappear."
The other six stories in Norris' collection are stunning. In "The Quarry," a woman who keeps house for four men thinks "she is being difficult again. But when she was difficult they looked at her as though they knew who she was. And then she knew herself." In another startling moment of revelation, a widower who has hired a companion to get through Christmas realizes that with this stranger, as with his wife, "he had struck down in her vital self and summoned compliance out of her soul."
THE 13 STORIES in Pamela Painter's Getting To Know the Weather are short explorations into unusual ways of being. In "The Next Time I Meet Buddy Rich," a young drummer on the road waits for the moment when he will know he is great: "I could feel it again and I listened to my wrists making music I was born to hear." Another story, "Intruders of Sleepless Nights," is told from the point of view of a burglar who stumbles onto a surprise. Painter has an unusual ability to move from character to character, lightly touching on eccentricities; when she writes about so-called normal people, her stye becomes flat: "That evening Sylvia went with Lynne to check the children and put out the lights as George locked up."
Joan Givner's 10 stories in the oddly-titled Tentacles of Unreason are mature, humorous and fully developed. Some are set in the suffocating English departments of provincial universities, where "Domes of arctic air clamped down and snuffed out everything necessary to human existence." The narrator describes herself as "forty- five years old, chaste, lantern-jawed, and extremely myopic" ("First Love"). This last detail doesn't prevent her from describing her colleagues with killing clarity. After a drunken faculty party, "various people were holding up Dunc while others were trying to put on his boots, and someone was saying, 'Did he have a hat, does anyone know?'"
In "Brains" an adolescent Sophie Lewty is fascinated by the contrast between her grandmother who bets on the horses and quarrels with her daughters and her grandmother who watches television and lives inside her own head: "If Sophie asked her something, she often repeated the word and followed its train of associations into some kind of inner mental labyrinth."
The same observant young woman takes her grandmother to France in "A Spectator Sport," where she intends to find the grave of her husband, killed in the war, and bring home his bones. "But when they dug in the ground, there was nothing there. No coffin, no bones, nothing at all. When Alfred had been blown up, there had been nothing left to bury."
These four small books range wide. Each author reaches out to explore points-of-view which surprise and even shock. In marking out a wider territory, these collections suggest that a new day is dawning for the writers of short fiction. The University of Illinois Press is to be commended for bringing Givner, Painter, Norris and Gerber to the attention of a wider public.