IN DIANE VREULS' world, everyone is on a journey, whether they're at home or traveling, whether they know it or not. Her 12 expertly crafted stories follow characters who are moving away from loss, moving towards an uncertain future with a wry hint of promise or surprise, or angling towards the discovery of a lover or an identity. These are word-conscious stories, snappy, playful, lucid, detached. They do not move to capture the heart directly. Instead, one has to enter them on the run, grabbing hold of the quirk of modern life, the silver dart of humor, the swift insight into the tenuousness of trust and human connections -- then these stories are most affecting.
In "The Mary Mystery," for example, a wife finds the word "Mary" slipped under her door, then reads the notice, " 'I am not responsible. Mary,' " in the personals column. She reviews all the Marys she's ever known -- "Mary Marlene . . . who still irons sheets, or means to, until she collapses on the sofa and falls asleep"; "Mary Alice buys half and half at our neighborhood food store . . . Mary Marcy invites me for tea . . . " -- and begins to doubt her husband's fidelity. "I'm not a suspicious person. But the data could worry me. One morning Raymond came down the staircase and said to Anita 'Guess what.' He's never ever loved her, has found his Monique . . . The preferred one is fifteen years younger . . . but possesses a truly precocious understanding of his needs . . . The wife and kids must accept the fact that this happens. All the time? No, just one particular morning, at breakfast." The story teases us about the stability we take for granted. With Vreuls, we can never be sure of anything; the most ordinary life is vulnerable to loss, wonder, change.
The future that unravels beyond our vision is the subject of "Let Us Know," the title story and perhaps the cleverest in the collection. It also confirms the very human desire to find out how things turn out. Several vignettes catch characters in one moment and project into others. There's a boy and his grandfather who fly a kite too high to see -- "If you cross our quadrant and meet it, let them know"; a reluctant young woman urged to skate across a frigid lake every morning by two Dutch exchange students -- now, years later, "she makes it in twenty minutes, less when the wind shifts. She'd like them to know." A desperately bored woman in an English hotel, forced to fall "back on her Inner Resources, the ones she'd been saving for years," seizes upon a World War II romance in the magazine pages that line her drawers, continues the story in the draw-liners of her next door neighbor until they can't find the very last page. The story could go either way.
By playing with patterns and enlarging possibilities, Vreuls drops the unexpected into the lives of her characters and so alters their perceptions as well as the reader's. Like "Let Us Know," several of the stories shift from a proposition to a question. In "Stoke Sobel in Polk," an ex-lieder singer searches for the lover he's met in a psychiatric hospital without knowing her married name. He begins by describing all the things she used to do and ends by wondering who she has become: "Would she live on a Pleasant Street? King? Live in one of those painted houses with moving cartons still on the porch, coaster wagons and tricycles mired in the lawn? In a modular home on a tarmac called High Meadow Way? Could she have been so cured?" "The Seller of Watches" is a humorous Serbo-American love story of sorts in which the narrator debates marriage to Vasil, once pleasingly "unsuitable," but now approved by her mother, sending gifts -- "I can see him in the junk shop, exercising his taste . . . He spots the comb. Did he say 'Amazing! I always find something of value in an intrinsically worthless world!' or was it only to me he made such admissions?" She ends not knowing whether to take him or leave him, pondering "Is there a way to unknow him?" IN ALL these stories, Vreuls experiments with words, interested in their cumulative power, the striking image and the sudden turn. Her narratives are filled with lists. "Returns," a tour de force on travel, details a family's arrangements to move to Ireland in a kind of poetry of preparation: "In tax time they studied the country's taxes . . . Ordered change for their pockets and purses . . . Silver swans, harps, fishes, on coins designed, they read, by a commission chaired by Yeats . . . Collected recipes of the country, learned the fish (rudd, tench) . . . Cancelled the car insurance, bought yellow macs, practiced walking the wrong side of roads, walking in rain . . . " In "Estarolly's Mountain," two kids who live in a "land so flat a ball wouldn't roll once you stopped pushing," are bent on building a mountain so they can use their dead uncle's skis: "We began with the sofa. Aunt Betty's sofa out in the pasture. We loaded it up with windfall apples and hay. Piled on four tires, a ladder, pieces of Dodge, and old notebooks . . . bushels of leaves and branches and rocks . . . siding from Mr. Marozzi, old window sashes, and a baby buggy for twins."
They do it. They take that junk, those found objects, and transform them into a mountain covered by topsoil and pines and grass, just as Vreuls treats details, and questions and ordinary events with an oddness and freshness that make them stand out from the flatness of our lives. It's true these stories seem more fascinated with language than with feelings; they play clever, subtle games, and they can be difficult to enter. But nearly all grow brighter after several readings, their intelligence and coolness drawing us into her distinctive vision.