TIME WITH CHILDREN By Elizabeth Tallent Knopf. 158 pp. $15.95
In "Black Holes," one of the 13 stories in Elizabeth Tallent's splendid new collection, Time With Children, a precocious 5-year-old consoles her neglectful psychiatrist father: " 'You're just you.'
" 'Yes', he says, 'but is that good or bad?' "
When she fails to answer, he says, " 'I can see that you want me to fear the worst.' "
Fearing the worst -- often with as much wit as anguish -- is a tendency shared by many of Tallent's characters. They are people whose interior lives are rich with puzzlement. Always they seem more bemused than shocked by their circumstances, more dismayed than defeated by the untidiness of their lives. Everyday reality grounds their fantasies, and they persevere.
Tallent's characters -- busy artists, doctors, professors, parents, renovators of old houses -- are never consumed by melancholy. Though they are given to pensiveness, they manage to get supper on the table, a fretful child calmed to sleep, a neighbor's wood chopped, an important document signed. The idiosyncrasies of their gloom are dealt with in an offhand way. Sorrow, jealousy, guilt, desire are never exalted at the expense of other pressing concerns: a leaky roof, a fox in the hen house, a babysitter's sudden cancellation.
In "Migrants," a single father admonishes his lonesome, adolescent daughter:" 'You're not going to grow up into one of those women who thinks the world owes them a living.' " This sort of enforced pioneer spirit informs and enlivens Tallent's characters. These are men and women who discriminate between what they would wish for and what they can live with. We care about them because no matter how muddled their affairs and transgressions, they attempt to sort through the clutter rather than be confounded by it.
Elizabeth Tallent's vision of cohabitation is that it is a comfort and a trial. She is both perceptive and forgiving in her renderings of men and women in early midlife, their first marriages failed or crumbling, their second marriages tinged with weary expectation. Always the passion in these stories feels a little dog-eared.
The theme of reparation is strong in Tallent's stories. A recurrent image is that of the dilapidated house undergoing restoration. Similarly, characters engage in relationships with an eye for what's faulty, what might prove troublesome later. With houses and people, durability is as valued a prize as possession.
Three stories focus on New Yorkers Kyra and Charlie who, with their small son Nicholas, spend time in London in order for Charlie to study British publishing. Theirs is the nuclear family undemolished yet on guard. Charlie's trustworthiness is frayed by past indiscretions while Kyra rather confusedly takes an English lover. In the title story we witness the ironic effect that time spent with a young child has on a man and woman's newly perceived desire for each other.
In several other stories, Caro, vacillating between complaint and devotion, struggles to understand the impulses that seem to fragment her new husband's loyalties. Living in an old house remotely located near the Rio Grande, Caro must deal with isolation from her sprawling, big-hearted Nicaraguan family as well as her husband's preoccupation with a past that excludes her.
BUT OF ALL the marriages scrutinized in Time With Children, Jenny's and Sam's, with its troubles least defined, is most resonant with longing and strife. Their dissatisfactions are sublimated into worshipful interpretation of the natural world as Jenny becomes enthralled with an unruly horse and Sam spares the life of a thieving fox. The two most powerful stories in the collection, "Sweet Disposition" and "Favor," suggest that love's failure or persistence is the pure, reckless result of accident.
Throughout Time With Children the author's style is lush and meditative. Even the slightest stories possess a methodical lyricism, a quiet unhurried strategy. One reads with an awareness of precise, accumulating imagery that matters.
A father remarks that his infant son reminds him of "Einstein thinking about ice cream." A woman comforting her child notices "that infinitely fresh, wild, superheated quality of a child's skin after tears." A man diving into rough water to look for his son detects that the "dazzle in the corner of his vision is the river wrinkling around reeds. The bitterness in his mouth is the licked-clamshell taste of river water." Characters are keen observers of their worlds and are frequently stunned by a clear and purposeful beauty that takes them beyond the squalor of self.
If the stories lack a conclusiveness, seem to dissipate rather than end, they are nonetheless persuasive. Their meanings flicker rather than blaze. They are not about the facts of modern love but the slippery intricacies. Time With Children is a collection as remarkable for its author's sense of wonder as for her intelligence.
Marianne Gingher is the author of the novel "Bobby Rex's Greatest Hit." A collection of her stories, "Teen Angel," will appear next spring.