SQUANDERING THE BLUE
By Kate Braverman
Fawcett Columbine. 241 pp. $18.95
As we know from Joan Didion, Los Angeles is not all sunshine, surf, Rodeo Drive and stars in Jaguars. Poet and novelist Kate Braverman has also made a career of chronicling L.A.'s darker side. In her first collection of short stories, "Squandering the Blue," Braverman's characters are desperately depressed women, often single mothers, pushing 40 in seedy apartments. As Braverman warns, "There are no families anymore, only women with children."
The women in these lavishly detailed stories would weep into their cups -- if they hadn't quit drinking. They've given up cocaine too, and cigarettes. They take long baths or sleepwalk through shopping malls ("a kind of morgue for the not yet dead") in an attempt to forget unhappy childhoods, failed marriages. Should they listen to each other at AA meetings, our heroines could sympathize with each other's vulnerabilities. But they don't relate. Though the stories are linked, each woman suffers alone, trapped in her own failures.
Alcoholic Suzanne Cooper, in "Temporary Light," has lost custody of her children after a nervous breakdown and is now "banished" to a one-bedroom apartment. So is Jessica Moore, who grows distant from her husband in "Over the Hill" and surrenders to cocaine addiction on a Hawaiian vacation in "Points of Decision." We meet poet Diana Barrington in several stories as well, from her breakdown to her recovery.
Braverman faces the challenge of inventing a shape for this material. The process of addiction and recovery is extremely slow, and almost entirely private. As Suzanne notes, she has "rebuilt her life one painful molecule at a time." Such a process is almost antithetical to the short story form, which often depends on one strong, central event or image for closure.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most effective stories in "Squandering the Blue" are the most heavily plotted -- the ones that offer some external counterpoint to the characters' internal struggles. In "Tall Tales From the Mekong Delta," a drug dealer follows a divorcee from her AA meeting and tempts her with all of her old vices. Lenny, the fast-talking, chain-smoking Vietnam veteran with the red Ferrari, makes a terrific L.A. devil. In "Desert Blues," Diana Barrington battles a hallucinatory nervous breakdown as her friend Carlotta forces her to attend an anti-nuclear demonstration in Nevada. The journey, and Carlotta's wry solicitude, help to restore Diana's sanity.
Other stories are basically plotless -- tone poems of abstinence. Braverman uses the L.A. setting to evoke her heroines' disenfranchisement, with the blue sky and ocean echoing their relentlessly blue moods. In their marriages, many of the women lived in Beverly Hills, with its lawns "the green of money" in "climate that only money can buy ... there should be lilies in the pools, and peacocks and jaguars in the cool night grass." But their childhoods were often spent in "unwholesome" apartment buildings "crowded together, pressed shoulder to shoulder, as if anticipating a future where one would always be standing in line."
At its best, such language can build to its own kind of poetic denouement. "Temporary Light" is particularly touching: Though Suzanne accomplishes nothing more than buying Christmas cards, Braverman makes us feel how such a small step can bring a sense of redemption. As Diana begins to recover in "Falling in October," she also regains her humor, and lambasts contemporary culture: "There are no nervous breakdowns anymore... . The best you can get is an episode... . Some of us have stopped dieting and going to our electrolysis appointments. We deliberately litter."
Sometimes it's difficult to tell Diana from Suzanne. Is it Laurel Sloan, the 40-year-old poet from "A Touch of Autumn," whom Lenny seduces after the AA meeting, or Jessica or Erica? Like Laurel, Diana is a poet and single mother, so it's not totally clear whose daughter narrates the title story or whose childhood is recounted in "Naming Names." The decision to structure the collection as a story cycle thus works less well than it would if the characters were more individual, as they were in Braverman's celebrated last novel, "Palm Latitudes" -- there the range of heroines was notably large.
Interlocked or not, three or four of the 12 stories in "Squandering the Blue" are too weak to hold their own in a collection. The others, however, are brush strokes in a moving portrait of L.A. women on the edge -- of sanity, the continent and, Braverman tells us, a millennium "stripped of illusions."
The reviewer's most recent books are "Limited Partnerships," a novel, and "Pocket Sundial," poems.