And Other Tales

By Richard Selzer

Random House. 229 pp. $18.95

SINCE SURGEONS have a reputation for being the pure technicians of medicine -- uninterested in their patients' human problems, much less the state of their souls -- the writer-surgeon Richard Selzer's preoccupation with the mysteries of the spirit seems particularly beguiling, a sort of triumph for the Other Side. As with his first short story collection, Rituals of Surgery, illness plays a large part in the stories in his latest book, but their primary focus is on the spiritual journeys taken by the afflicted, or by those who love them.

In "Whither Thou Goest," a widow becomes obsessed with the desire to hear the beating of her late husband's transplanted heart. In "Pipistrel," a woman whose fiercely loved autistic son has escaped the persecutions of their neighbors by going to live in a cave, struggles to protect him from the search party pursuing him. In the title story, a woman dying of AIDS she contracted from her bisexual husband flees to a small French town and is tended lovingly by the local peasants. With the help of their ancient gods, they orchestrate her death as though it were a joyful ballet:

" 'Yes,' {Triton} said. 'You are ready. We will go now. Look! Here are the fish to welcome you, and the birds to see you off.' The last sound I heard was the soft applause of their wings. The next moment my head filled with green. A rush, a rapture, a delirium of green."

In each of these stories, we feel that Selzer's heart is indubitably in the right place: his affirmation of the mysteries of human experience, of the enduring and strange forms love can take, of the power of the spirit, is wholly admirable, the sort of humanistic perspective that is lacking in too much modern fiction. Above all, he seems to be saying, love matters, joy will triumph, the realm of the spirit is all around us.

So one would like to be able to report that these are fully satisfying stories, as uniformly excellent as their author's intentions. Unfortunately, that is only intermittently the case.

Perhaps the most powerful story in the book is "Pipistrel," in which the mixture of pain, terror and exultation felt by the mother of the autistic child is evoked so vividly that the reader's empathy is fully engaged. All the bizarre and frightening things that take place towards the end of the story are rendered believable by the sheer urgency of emotion in the prose, as well as by what has gone before, and the transcendence of the ending seems thoroughly earned. It is an impressive accomplishment.

In some of the other stories, though, the mystery seems forced, and the level of intensity is not high enough to carry the conceit. For example, there is something faintly ludicrous about the tale of the woman and the heart -- and Selzer's tone here is rather flat-footed, so that the reader is never seduced into suspending disbelief. Nor is it clear why the American protagonist of "Lindow Man," after nursing his wife through a debilitating illness and then becoming a total recluse, should suddenly become obsessed with an English bog and a corpse that was discovered there. The solemn, quasi-mystical descriptions of his journey to the bog and his explorations in it are finally just irritating. It's as if we're supposed to accept that something terribly meaningful is going on without being so crass as to ask precisely what it is.

In the title story, too, the overlay of mysticism sometimes seems like an excuse for abandoning simple logic and realistic perception. The dying woman, writing to her husband, mentions that it has been a year since she left, while also referring to the fact that she is pregnant with his child. The peasants are all possessed of wordless wisdom. And the narrator's tone of serene aloofness seems unearned, the product not of painful struggle and eventual triumph but of effortless acceptance, just as the painless prettiness of first her baby's death and then her own seems too easy to be real.

Perhaps what is missing is a sense of these characters' mere humanity, as opposed to their spiritual essences. Too few of them emerge as distinct individuals rooted in ordinary existence. They seem to have been created in order to illustrate a lofty point, and thus they never seem wholly real. One gets no sense of their individual loneliness, their messy sadness and resentment, only of their transcendence of such things.

Maybe Selzer, who is retired from surgery now, wanted to forget the ugly woes of the body and concentrate wholly on spirit instead. But as all the great romantics knew, the soul and the body cannot that easily be separated out. If he had grounded his characters more in their bodies, in their human particularities and emotions, he might have managed to make us care more about their spirits, too.

Evelyn Toynton is a New York writer and critic.