THE BODY AND ITS DANGERS
By Allen Barnett
St. Martin's Press
181 pp. $15.95
EARLY IN this first collection of stories about the risks of desire, the pain of rejection and the vulnerability of love, a narrator recalls a teacher's inverted maxim: "An unlived life is not worth examining." Everything about Allen Barnett's work suggests nothing but lived life; the details and emotions of these stories are so immediate, so explicit, so heartfelt, that often there is nothing left but to release a shocked sigh of recognition and admiration for the honest power of Barnett's prose.
No one rests easy here. A mother struggles to interest her son in his vanished father; a newly diagnosed AIDS patient travels to Chicago to bring his bad news to two former college roommates and an ex-lover, only to discover he is not the only one who has changed. A gay mother, whose daughter believes that "lesbianism is next to laziness," passionately recalls the man who fathered her child. A New York Times article on how AIDS has left seven men sharing a Pines beachhouse oblivious to grief, shatters the delicate friendships of those within the house and sparks a moving exploration of the effects of living in constant mourning. The narrator, Clark, who compulsively collects every article that mentions AIDS from the Times, expresses more disappointment about the article than anger. "I'm disappointed when they write on our issues and don't report more than we already know . . . And sometimes I assume there is a language to describe what we're going through, and that they would use it if there was."
Barnett's people do not run from the world, but learn instead to embrace what they love. "What in an unknown heaven," one character asks, "could compare to that you had already developed a taste for -- coffee in the morning, whiskey at night?" By refusing to bow to misfortune, they are sometimes rewarded with a measure of peace. "You let go of people, the living dead, and return to yourself . . . like a widower, a tourist alone in a foreign country . . . The time being seeps in through senses: the plush of a green sofa; the music we listen to when we attempt to forgive ourselves our excesses; the crazing pattern on the ginger jar that reminds us of why we bought it in the first place, not to mention the shape it holds, the blessing of smells it releases. The stretch of time and the vortex that it spins around, thinning and thickening like taffy, holds these pleasures, these grace notes, these connections to others, to what it is humanly possible to do."
If there is a language that will do justice to these complex emotions, surely it is Allen Barnett's own.
By Stanislaw Benski
Translated from the Polish by Walter Arndt Helen and Kurt Wolff
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
160 pp. $19.95
POLISH JEWISH survivors of the Holocaust people these stories drawn from various collections of the late Stanislaw Benski, former head of the State Social Welfare Home for the Aged in Warsaw. Benski's tart-tongued characters, many of whom live in a nursing home, attempt to navigate their remaining days according to their natures: some wanting to remember, some praying to forget, some unable to face what has happened to their friends, their families, their lives.
These men and women are inquisitors; they ask endless questions of themselves and others around them. Lonely, estranged from the world they once knew, they stretch towards one another for respite when their knowledge is too much to bear. "I wish that everything that had happened hadn't happened," says one-legged Rivka who had survived by jumping from a train to Treblinka. "Tell me that everything Rivka went through is a lie, a fantasy, a fairy tale . . ." In New York, a Warsaw Jew who emigrated before the war creates a new "curriculum vitae" for himself, because no one will believe his good luck.
Despite their infirmities, Benski's characters are blessed with a shrewd humor. In "Syndrome," a prostitute proposes marriage to a camp survivor. She urges him to go abroad; she promises to convert to Judaism. But he refuses. "There are three obstacles," he says. "The first: the graves of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and brothers are here. The second: my character. The third: your character."
Given their terrible fates, why do these Jews hold onto their dreams? Why do the nurses and relatives and friends often deceive them by playing along with their fantasies? The simple answer is that dreams are all that remain. But a second compelling reason rises from the voice of the hunchback Haskiel who escorts his blind friend Abram through the ravaged streets of Warsaw. As they stroll, the blind man describes the life he imagines bustling about him, speaking as though that life has not been destroyed. The hunchback debates telling Abram that nothing is left, yet he resists, "because," Benski writes, "when he turns, he sees that Abram is slowly tilting his head now to one side, now to the other, smiling, and one doesn't often see Abram smile."
By John Holman
Ticknor & Fields
153 pp. $18.95
THIS first collection of stories from John Holman serves up minimalism with a New Southern twist. Holman -- a former writing student of both Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme -- spins his tales in regulation minimalist prose, but reveals a piquant, certain eye for ironies and surreal details that skew normal life into something wonderful, strange and surprising.
Lunatic moments abound. Two women start a scuffle during a funeral for a man who may or may not have killed himself (or been murdered by one of them); an unemployed black teacher of geography meets a woman with no time for "racial stuff" who talks in "squabble," a coded language designed to circumvent intimacy. In "The Story of Art History," a physical science teacher on his way to a friend's apartment admires a boy dancing a slip-sliding step called the Pop, hands change to a bum and is falsely accused of stealing earrings at a shopping mall. At his buddy's apartment, he meets up with his friend's girl who solicits his help with an art history paper on the evil in Gauguin while she settles a hand on his thigh. When he turns her down, she dumps piles of red lingerie onto the floor ("Red really sings.") and the two of them begin their own barefoot dance on the slippery underwear.
What connects these odd-ball moments is not only their absurdity, but their logic: What you see, Holman seems to be saying, is almost never what you get. How to interpret the underwear rumba or a black man browsing for beautiful earrings in a shopping mall or Gauguin's intentions all depends on where you're looking from. Luckily for the reader, Holman looks in all the right places.
THE ORANGE FISH
By Carol Shields
199 pp. $17.95
TIME races forward in Carol Shields's stories; to make the most of it, her characters need to move fast or risk being left behind. The motions of change and age and commerce propel her men and women as they search for understanding and -- with any luck -- transcendence of their everyday lives.
Shields is a nervily intelligent writer; her stories are both moving and wry. In the title story, an unhappily married couple finds their lives transformed by a lithograph of an orange fish with a "Buddha-like sense of being in the right place, the only place." At a meeting of owners of the lithograph, people testify on the magical effect of the fish. The narrator, emboldened by others' revelations, holds that the orange fish "will never grow old." But even as he says these words, the image of the fish is about to be mass-marketed into a quick demise.
In "Hazel," a widow takes a job demonstrating kitchen wares in department stores and finds herself on an unexpected meteoric rise up the corporate ladder of Kitchen Kult. More astonishing is her own personal transformation: She moves from a woman who had "managed to avoid most of the arguments and issues of the world" to someone with a "talent for banter," who learns to work the crowd using her own wiles. As she flips omelettes and chops carrots, she feels foolish "but often exuberant, like a semi-retired, slightly eccentric actress. And she felt, oddly that she was exactly as strong and clever as she need be." By the story's end she stumbles on a realization that "everything is an accident . . . Her whole life is an accident, and by accident she had blundered into the heart of it."
In other stories a best-selling novelist encounters the first writing block of his life and revels in it, much to the dismay of his new wife; a couple on a trip to Paris finds themselves more vulnerable to their own intimate collusions than to a terrorist bomb. Infused with a sly humor, these poignant stories revel in the ordinary, with a few side-trips towards the sublime.
Ilene Raymond's short stories have appeared in the "O. Henry Prize Stories" and "Editor's Choice, Vol. 2." She teaches at Temple University.