EVERY TIME Garland told the story . . . he gave it a new title, his favorites being those with sweep and miracle." So begins the first story in Lee Abbott's impressive collection, Love Is the Crooked Thing. Indeed, Abbott himself favors titles with sweep and miracle ("The Purpose of This Creature Man," "The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance") every time he tells the story, the one story that all 11 of his stories tell. It could, in fact, be summed up in two of Abbott's titles: that inevitably "We Get Smashed and Our Endings Are Swift" makes "Having the Human Thing of Joy" all the more precious and imperative.
But the "discrete and illuminated landscape of wanting love and having it" is not always easy to find, and for Abbott's characters the way there is frequently hazardous, almost always touching and often funny, whether it takes them to Vietnam, Cleveland, Ohio, or Deming, New Mexico. What Abbott's characters -- these ordinary Burls and Doyles and Dwights and Lamars -- must learn is the ordinary lesson, extraordinary for each of us in its discovery, that, as one of them says, "Everything is fragile."
Such knowledge comes in various shapes of loss. For Pfc. Garland H. Steeples it comes in the form of a young Vietnamese woman met, and lost, in the Greyhound bus station in Deming, where she is briefly stopped over on her way to becoming a rock and roll star after "working for Jesus." (" 'Christ plenty damn big,' she said, 'save villains, then go show biz. Meet Elvis Presley.' ") For Garland it is love, the kind in which his heart "just flops over," and the story of this brief encounter becomes "a thing he told maybe a thousand times in 1968," in Vietnam, a legend that survives long after Garland ships out to be repeated again and again, either "embellished or picked clean," by everybody from Edward Landsdale himself to O.T. Winans, "a Roy Acuff look-alike from Houston." Eventually, the story makes it back home to "the World," to be told for the last time by a Vietnam vet named Onan Motley in a moment of passion "which may have been the high point of an entire life" in which he feels "for an instant or two the shining presence of Garland himself."
Often, the shape of knowledge is death, or its prospect. In "Be Free, Die Young," Dwight Eugene Winger recalls from the vantage point of early middle age a time when his future father-in-law, Dub Spedding, threatened him with death at the end of a gleaming silver pistol and changed his life. For Lamar Hoyt, in "The Human Thing of Joy," the knowledge comes in a snapshot he finds among his mother's belongings after her death, a snapshot of his mother as a young, beautiful, and very naked woman, knowledge that he only really understands years later when he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful: "I have seen it written in a story-book [my son] Buddy has that life is a train ride, with many stations and much clickety-clack -- which, though it is only metaphor, may be true; but the ride is not straight because every now and then -- as between one event and another -- it is revealed, so the book says, that quote you are making a curve and a light is thrown back showing a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come unquote."
Tyler, the protagonist of "The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance," learns "about mystery, about the strange union of innocence and loss, which sometimes passes for wisdom, and about the downward trend of human desires" through two stories his father tells him about death, one about the father's accidental killing of a man on a deserted highway and the other about the death of the father's first wife, a long-kept secret.
NOT ALL of these stories work equally well. In some of them the voice is so oracular, so extravagant that one feels bludgeoned and the voices begin to sound exactly alike. This is particularly true when Abbott moves out of his familiar world, in "The Unfinished Business of Childhood," for example, in which a freaked-out singer named Bobby Stoops becomes (or does he?) a refugee from the planet Alderon, or in "The Purpose of This Creature Man," a tale about a strange band of early-20th-century outlaws.
The best of them, though, are rife with the miracle and tragedy of life. My favorites are those which feature Lamar T. Hoyt, the golf-playing Chevrolet dealer from Deming, or some variation of this small-town Everyman (sometimes called Dwight, Doyle or Tyler), and given Abbott's recent stories in The Atlantic, this seems to be the direction his work is taking. Here is Lamar, recently divorced and about to go out on the town for the first time: "I stood in front of the mirror for an hour perhaps, studying myself as I have seen others look at my automobiles they can't afford. I said to myself such hopeful phrases as 'You look good, Lamar, you really do,' and splashed myself with a modern fragrance my son Buddy sent for Xmas. I smelled like a jungle, I thought, which was maybe right for this world."
Lee Abbott is right for this world all right, with all its sorrows and joys, and we can be glad for these stories which remind us that, like Garland Steeples' dreamgirl, we must "Take up the light and shake self's tailfeathers," stories that offer us "a moral which was complex and finicky and a thing as fundamental as shelter, a moral, you know, which resisted all words save those which trafficked in fortune and love."