ENCHANTED NIGHT

By Steven Millhauser

Crown. 109 pp. $17

Reading this moonlit, entrancing novella by Steven Millhauser -- master of a prose that doesn't merely aspire to the condition of music but actually achieves it -- I paused, as usual, to wonder just how this Debussy of the page produces his haunting verbal effects. His secret, it seems to me, lies in the cadence of his sentences. Millhauser's ear knows precisely how to employ repetition, pauses, fragments, the single striking analogy or extended litany to generate sinuous, languid rhythms. One could readily compare Enchanted Night to some of those pagan, fin-de-siecle fairy tales about Pan, or to Charles Finney's eerie classic The Circus of Dr. Lao, but a better analogy would be a piece of French impressionistic music: Here is the same delicacy of touch, the aching modal shifts, the lush chromaticism, the moments of silence or onomatopeia. Enchanted Night might well be read while listening to "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."

The moon rises on a small southern Connecticut town in summer -- and through the radiant dark it works a strange magic. A store mannequin comes alive, a 39-year-old philosopher who holes up in his mother's house goes wandering, a distant flute summons the town's sleepy children to the woods, the Moon Goddess descends to earth to embrace a 16-year-old boy, and a girl gang, young lovers, a sinister pervert and a drunk emerge briefly from the shadows. "This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods."

Everything happens as in a dream. Among the toys the disdainful Columbine spurns balloon-shirted Pierrot; crickets ceaselessly chatter "live it up, live it up"; the 14-year-old Laura, burning with restlessness, offers herself to the moon; and a forlorn, intoxicated car mechanic kisses the window behind which stands the unmoving woman of his dreams -- unmoving, that is, until this night. Meanwhile, under the trees, another young woman makes love: "He is kissing her hands, even now. Gravely she thinks: this is what I will remember. Through the spruce branches she can see a glowing piece of moon. She has the odd sense that she's up there, looking down, remembering. She is remembering that summer night long ago when he kissed her hands under the spruces, back in the days when she was young, when she was wild, when anything was possible in the night never ending."

Throughout Enchanted Night Millhauser meanders among a dozen characters, with only a few chapters taking more than a page. But we hear the arias of field insects; we listen to a chorus of night voices. One might almost imagine this as the libretto for an American version of Ravel's opera "L'enfant et les sortileges." For in the hot darkness all nature trembles with eager vitality and expectancy. These small-town characters, like the somber protagonists of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poems, disclose to us their heart's desires, their vain hopes and temporary consolations. Yet on this night the moon moves in mysterious ways, performing wonders -- or does it only seem to? Nothing, after all, really changes. Perhaps any summer night, at least any summer night in our memories, may be equally enchanted. Remember when we, remember how we . . . Even the moon goddess sighs, faced with "the melancholy of mortal love, for the children of earth are falling like mown grass even as they breathe."

Millhauser's prose has always annoyed certain readers just because it aims, quite shamelessly, to be beautiful. And beautiful in a slightly old-fashioned, even Pateresque way. Much of his work is gravely rueful and pensive, suffused with that sense of undefinable loss that any adult past 30 must feel much of the time. Sunt lacrimae rerum might be his motto -- there are tears in things. So Millhauser writes about childhood and doomed love, about romantic dreamers and the allure of far-off places, about the artisans of dying crafts and the forbidden and sometimes erotic twilight zones of our imagination. His natural form seems to be the long short story, one that allows him to create an atmosphere of yearning or menace or wonder, before ending with an epiphany, often a resigned acceptance: The world continues, the magic goes away.

For a long time Millhauser was best known for his early tour de force Edwin Mullhouse, a novel that parodies the literary biography while uncannily evoking the very taste and texture of a childhood in the 1950s. In that book Jeffrey Cartwright composes the life of his friend Edwin Mullhouse, whom he believes to be a major American writer, a plausible conceit until you understand that both boys are 11 years old. Out of this seemingly twee premise the novelist constructs a chilling account of obsession. In fact, Millhauser's protagonists all tend to be obsessives, visionaries or fanatics, though usually amiable and somewhat earnest. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer relates the story of one such, a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur who creates fabulous emporiums of pleasure and carnival. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997. But there are similar figures in the stories contained in such marvel-filled collections as The Barnum Museum, Little Kingdoms, In the Penny Arcade and The Knife Thrower.

Enchanted Night shows Steven Millhauser at his most daringly lyrical, evoking through words an insubstantial pageant that fades away with the dawn's light. Fiction could hardly be more airy and still tell a story. Of course, some readers may find that this tone poem piles on a little too much moonlight and roses. But for those who respond to Millhauser's wistful sorcery, Enchanted Night is another unlikely masterpiece from one of America's finest yet least known writers.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.

Excerpt

Now the dawn goddess in the palace of the East rises wearily from her couch, rubs her eyes, and puts on her saffron robe. She hurries to the courtyard, where she mounts her silver-wheeled chariot. Swiftly the two horses rise into the air, scattering darkness. At the first glimmer of gray in the sky, the piper in the woods looks up, bends and spins once more, and breaks off abruptly. In the shocking silence he beckons toward the sky, then turns and vanishes into the woods. The children, waking from their long dream, look around tiredly and head for home. The outlaws in their black masks have already slipped back into their own houses, hidden their masks in closets or bureau drawers, and pulled the covers over their shoulders. Janet looks down once more into the yard where her lover waves one more time before disappearing through the hedge. Now the dolls are growing sluggish, their limbs are stiffening. Pierrot cannot lower the white arm that reaches toward Columbine, whose lovely body, straining away from him, can no longer flee. The one-eyed cuddly bear sits motionless against a nearby trunk. Haverstraw's mother wakes for a moment as the front door clicks shut, then falls deeply asleep as she hears his footsteps climbing the stairs. Laura, closing the door to her room, hopes the man understood that she has thanked him. On a moonlit rug with a pattern of peacocks lies a yellow zinnia. Danny is fast asleep despite the noise of trucks coming through the screen of the open window. The guys in the library have left long ago. Coop lies dreaming and waking, tossing in his sheets, while in the window of the department store the mannequin stands stiffly in her straw hat and sandals, gazing out at the stoplight changing from red to green. In her bedroom on the second floor, Mrs. Kasco lies fast asleep, though the insects are loud through her open window. The lovers and loners have left the beach, over the dark water a thin band of sky has grown pale, gulls walk in the seaweed and straw of the tideline, the moon, nearly full, shines in the part of the sky where it is still a summer night.

-- From "Enchanted Night," by Steven Millhauser