THE PEARLKILLERS By Rachel Ingalls Simon and Schuster. 215 pp. $15.95
RACHEL INGALLS grew up in Massachusetts, but has lived in England since 1964. Though more popular there than in the U.S., she's highly regarded by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly for her precise and unself-consciously economical prose.
Ingalls possesses a keen eye and ear for nuance, there is much solid realistic detail in her work, but she also employs allegory, fantasy and grotesquerie. In her novel Mrs. Caliban one of the major characters is a six-foot seven-inch amphibious humanoid. Her tight-lipped mixture of the realistic and fantastic sometimes recalls another New Englander, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Admirable in some respects, Ingalls' writing can be annoying. Her plots are often contrived and contain gratuitous killing. She's not considered a murder mystery writer, yet someone dies, often violently, in almost all of her works. She seems to feel obliged to write about dying. After reading some of her pieces, I came to anticipate death in the rest, and it occurred predictably, no matter how mildly her stories began, as if she thought only death could lend them profundity.
The Pearlkillers contains four novellas. In "Third Time Lucky" a woman who's been married consecutively to two men killed in Vietnam goes with her third husband on an Egyptian honeymoon. He also dies, as a result of slipping and falling a few yards while climbing a pyramid. Normally such a minor accident wouldn't be fatal, but Ingalls' characters may expire at any time, by any means. Despite its artificial plot, however, "Third Time Lucky" is a good, often humorous piece. Ingalls hits the mark with her portrayal of American tourists, who seem to be descended from Mark Twain's gauche but likeable innocents.
"People to People" begins with four men meeting to decide how to handle Bill, who, with them, had accidentally killed a college classmate years ago. The crime has gone unsolved, but recently Bill has married a born-again Christian who urges him to confess and expose everyone. The attempt to silence Bill results in a graphically described mass murder. Ingalls' craftsmanship is excellent here, she's far more skillful than most genre authors, but her story doesn't go beyond being a gory entertainment for those who enjoy reading about homicide.
THE METAPHORICAL "Inheritance" deals with a woman who travels from the U.S. to Europe to South America searching for an unspecified treasure that a relative has stolen. When she finds it, it's worthless: a once massive pearl that's shrivelled and turned brown. This is a disappointing piece; its ironic ending signifies little, and Ingalls' description of people and events is superficial, not as sharply observed as usual.
"Captain Hendrik's Story" contains two sections. Initially we meet Captain Anders Hendrik as he prepares to leave his family to embark on a two-year exploring expedition. No one hears from him for a decade, though, when he returns claiming that the journey has failed and only he has survived. Lately, however, his luck has changed; he's made millions as a riverboat gambler. Now a wealthy man, he revives the family fortunes.
In the second section we learn what really happened to Hendrik. Early in the voyage his ship is destroyed in a storm, which only he and a gypsy crew member, Sten, live through. They become homosexual lovers and travel to Vienna, where they make and lose fortunes as thieves and pimps. Sten is imprisoned and injured, Hendrik believed killed, while breaking free. Hendrik goes to Genoa, then becomes a riverboat captain on the Amazon, where he does amass a fortune gambling.
But Sten turns up and attempts to blackmail him. The captain confesses all to his ingenious young niece, and she has the answer. Her boyfriend, a revolutionary of some kind and a crack pistol shot, obligingly murders Sten.
The improbable plot of this story makes it hard to take seriously. Still, it contains stretches of excellent work, particularly in the dreamy portion describing Hendrik's return to his family and the blissful months that follow. Even when Ingalls is not at her best, her books contain some uncommonly good writing which students of modern fiction will find worth exploring.
Harvey Pekar is the author of "American Splendor" and the recently published "More American Splendor."