FALLING THROUGH SPACE

The Journals of Ellen Gilchrist

Little, Brown. 166 pp. $15.95

Katherine Anne Porter once wrote that she had little interest in anyone's biography after the first three years because "whatever was going to be was all prepared for before that." Ellen Gilchrist, two generations later, says: "I know a lot of two-year-olds that have genius. They are terribly observant, absolutely curious, willing to take risks. They will pay endless attention to detail, will return over and over again to a problem until it's solved. Suddenly, they make the final move, the cap is off the bottle, the cabinet is open ..."

Ellen Gilchrist's high regard for the nature of genius -- "You have to have a lot of possible moves so no one can get you in a position where you think there's only one way to solve a problem" -- is the unifying theme of "Falling Through Space," a collection of her occasional pieces. Besides many "Journal Entries" written for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," there are four magazine articles, a baccalaureate address and seven previously unpublished essays.

As a collection it is a good book: the accumulating revelation of a writer's mind. But it is almost ruined by its packaging. For some unfathomable and very annoying reason, it is passed off as one unified work, with no introduction, no titles, no publication dates to orient us until -- at last! -- a hidden "provenance" at the end of the book. The pictures (of the fuzzy snapshot variety belonging to huge biographical tomes) are not only out of place here but most of them are irrelevant. What saves the book is simply the fact that Gilchrist is a superb stylist, with a mind worth listening to.

We begin with the peopled landscape of Gilchrist's Mississippi childhood: the rivers and bayous, the back yards, the trees, the bustling kitchens, the audience of black well-wishers on her daily walks to the slot machine at the corner store. Between the lines of this Southern paradise, and sometimes sitting squarely on them, are the ambivalent relationships with her father and mother and her brother Dooley that later became the raw material for many of her stories.

No wonder that two or three rich husbands later she can put real rivers, oozy mud and gritty beaches above the artificial resorts she came to despise, no wonder that the physical reality that formed her sensibilities is so strong that the very air in a sketch of divorce'es defines their relationship:

"We would walk the beaches together like women whose men have gone to war. Beside us the great pounding heart of the ocean, the sea breeze in our hair, the voices of our children rising and falling in the distance. We would walk the beaches and tell our stories until they assumed the qualities of myths."

Later in the book Gilchrist celebrates those who have fed her mind: scientists, painters, poets, Bach. My favorite piece is "All the King's Horses," in which as a preschooler she decides come hell or high water to rely on her own experience, not to be held down by either her father or God, siding instead with the poets, who even then she recognized "were as angry with God as I was." She also talks directly about her work, in one essay defending herself against a charge of feminism, in others explaining how writing helps her live her life and is always trying to tell her something. Even when bragging about her grandchildren she is defining the tool most necessary to the writer -- an inquiring mind.

By the time we have finished this slim volume we know Gilchrist the writer pretty well -- know that by the age of 3 she had developed the kind of independent mind that does not need to justify its ways to anyone but itself, that keeps on until "the cabinet is open." We also understand why her fiction, without being at all derivative, is informed by the same complex temperament as Katherine Anne Porter's: a stubborn dedication to the uncovering of human irony, a tendency, despite temptations toward glamor and comfort, to opt for the harder path, often using "poorly disguised" autobiographical fiction, usually the short story, to dredge up the order in messy human relationships.

Like Porter and other tough-minded, good-humored stylists of the Old Southwestern tradition -- Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker -- Ellen Gilchrist early rebelled against its outward systems of order. "All you have to do to educate a child is to leave him alone and teach him to read," she tells us. If she had succumbed instead to those trying to get her to "do things right," our literature and our civilization would be the poorer for it.

The reviewer is a writer living in Kyle, Tex.