The first book of Ellen Gilchrist's to receive fairly wide attention was "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams," a remarkable collection of tough, funny, surprising short stories. The second was a novel, "The Annunciation," that was as bad as the first was good: flabby, narcissistic, sophomoric. Now we have the third, "Victory Over Japan," another story collection, and the good news -- the wonderful news -- is that "The Annunciation" was a fluke; not merely is this humdinger of a book as good as "In the Land of Dreamy Dreams," it is even better.
To say that Ellen Gilchrist can write is like saying that Placido Domingo can sing. All you need to do is listen. To a married man rushing off to meet his lover: "I'm sorry, Jesus, he thought, pulling out onto the highway. I know it's wrong and I know we're doing wrong. So go on and punish me if you have to but just let me make it there and back before you start in on me."
To a secretary off on a toot: "Sandor ordered a double gin martini and Lanier ordered wine and somehow or other I decided on a Salty Dog. Tequila on top of dexedrine is sort of like you took sunlight and squeezed it through a cylinder so what comes out the other end is the size of a thread. The thread is how you feel for about thirty minutes. After that, well, there's good and bad in everything."
To a young married woman: "My parents are schoolteachers. I thought I would have a more exotic life. I was raised to worship money. I was raised to get money any way I could. I met Duncan at Tulane. He couldn't even ask me to marry him without asking his parents' permission. I married him in spite of that. I married him to have his money. Now I have to pay for that. I have to pay and pay and pay. I am a cliche'."
Best of all, listen to Gilchrist herself. In a stunning story called "Music," about a girl whose "desire for beauty and romance drove her all day long and pursued her if she slept," she writes a paragraph that gains instant admission to the hall of fame:
"She was fourteen years old and she would sit on the porch at night looking down the hill that led through the small town of Franklin, Kentucky, and think about the stars, wondering where heaven could be in all that vastness, feeling betrayed by her mother's pale Episcopalianism and the fate that had brought her to this small town right in the middle of her sophomore year in high school. She would sit on the porch stuffing chocolate chip cookies into her mouth, drinking endless homemade chocolate milkshakes, smoking endless Lucky Strike cigarettes, watching her mother's transplanted roses move steadily across the trellis, taking her boyfriend's thin letters in and out of their envelopes, holding them up against her face, then going up to the new bedroom, to the soft, blue sheets, stuffed with cookies and ice cream and cigarettes and rage."
This girl, Rhoda, is one of the many spoiled, willful yet captivating women to whom Gilchrist introduces us in "Victory Over Japan." Among the others are Nora Jane, a slip of a girl who sticks up a bar in New Orleans, goes west to meet her boyfriend in San Francisco, and discovers "how hard it was to find out what you wanted in the world, much less how to get it"; Crystal, the aforementioned unhappy bride, who is one of those people "just meant to be more trouble than other people" and who finally commits a wickedly appropriate act of self-assertion; and Lady Margaret Sarpie, a society belle who dabbles in book reviewing and suddenly finds herself face to face with the object of her condescension.
All of these women, and their men as well, are out for a good time, though what they're more likely to get is a surprise; see, for example, what happens at the end of the day to two bar-hopping secretaries in "The Gauzy Edge of Paradise." Most of them are southern, and mostly the setting is New Orleans and environs, about which Gilchrist writes so well they ought to give her the keys to the city even though they probably want to lynch her.
"Victory Over Japan" is a story collection, but because many of the stories are connected in ways both obvious and subtle, you feel as though you are reading a novel; at the end you have that satisfied, contented feeling only a good novel can give. There are 14 stories in "Victory Over Japan," and the only thing wrong about them is that there aren't 14 more. No kidding: "Victory Over Japan" is an absolute knockout.