THE MEN IN MY LIFE

And Other More or Less True Recollections of Kinship by James D. Houston

Creative Arts. 176 pp. $14.95

I HAD LUNCH a few years ago with a friend who was then editing the About Men column for the New York Times Magazine. When I asked what her intimate view of men's emotions had taught her, the fork of fettucini stopped in mid-air and her eyes flared. "They are children," she said with the terrible finality of a third grade teacher. "Their idea of emotion is their childhood, and not one in one hundred has gotten beyond it."

Although I resisted it at the time, this comment has become a basic litmus for me when dipping into the growing genre of men writing about the emotions. Almost against my will (since childish things like third grade teachers are obviously still objects of some awe for me), I have found myself thinking: I know this fellow really had a deep and meaningful relationship with his mother or his marble bag, but does he have anything to say about being male, and an adult too?

Perhaps this is why John D. Houston's delightful new collection of essays, The Men in My Life, initially engaged me. In "Homage to the Count," Houston presents a surprising meditation on old age and its effects on Count Basie, who could no longer play at the end and was reduced to sitting on stage at the piano listening to his famous band play in his style. Feeling cheated, Houston almost walks out of the last Basie concert he attends. He doesn't though, and in the end is rewarded with an insight into the nature of life and old age when Basie comments, "It's good to be here with you . . . one more time."

Another piece, "The Dangerous Uncle," memorably portrays the relationship between two grown brothers. One of them, Dudley, (Houston's father) is responsible and reserved, while the other (his uncle Andy) is wild and forever announcing his arrival via telephone, such as "a call from an all-night service station in Reno, someone saying, 'Mr. Houston? We got a fella here out of gas and out of money sittin in a vegetable truck that isn't his and he can't remember where he got it, who says you're his brother and not to call the police til we call you first . . . ' "

In Houston's hands their story becomes a Steinbeck-like parable of the working people of the Santa Clara Valley. The last time James Houston's family saw Andy, for instance, was when he brought them a gift of a glossy black fighting cock, which promptly maimed or killed the family's entire flock of hens. As an enraged Dudley was about to dispatch the rooster with an axe, Andy pleaded with his brother not to, on the grounds that the bird cost him $50.

" 'FIFTY DOLLARS!' my father shouted. 'That's damn near half your pension check!'

" 'That's what I'm trying tell you.'

"The axe fell with such force, the blade sank two inches into the wood, while the black head of the bird went one way, and the rest of the bird went the other way. They watched it run in circles, with blood spurting from the open neck, until the life was spent and it fell over into the dirt.

"Quietly my father said" {to Andy}, " 'I want you to go get that bird and pluck it.' " Years later, the thought of the inedible, $50 fighting cock dinner that followed was one of the few things that could provoke the usually taciturn Dudley to open laughter, calling to mind Kurt Vonnegut's bon mot: "If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable."

THE MEN In My Life is very much a California book, from its comical contemporary hipsters (at one point a San Francisco-area plumber likens opening a plugged drain to "the kundalini snake of breakthrough perception"), to its deep reaching back for roots in the East.

The author and editor of 15 works including the novel Continental Drift and the non-fiction Californians: Searching for the Golden State, John D. Houston brings a rich literary talent to bear on the recollections that provide the skeleton for his reflections. Again and again, the stories are brought to life by the perfect (and perfectly effortless) line, as when he describes coming down to the beach: "It was a place where nothing moved, where water met the shore like a curving sheet of silver, cut to fit."

He also has a fine ear for colorful local colloquialisms, and a way of unobtrusively letting the deeper meaning coalesce from his stories. I was struck most, though, by his gift for mixing humor and tragedy. Thanks to Houston's self-effacing wit and sympathy for all manner of black sheep, I found myself laughing at some of the saddest points.

In books of this sort it is hard to escape personal as well as literary judgments, and in this case the verdict is clear on both counts: this is a good book by a good man.

The author of "Mountain in the Clouds," Bruce Brown is presently working on a book on the American farm crisis.