WATER STREET

By Crystal Wilkinson

Toby Press. 174 pp. $19.95

Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson proudly described herself as "country" in the introduction to her first collection of stories, "Blackberries, Blackberries." The 18 stories in it portrayed the misadventures, romances and entanglements of black country folks like her, "who have lived and are living in small towns, up hollers and across knobs." Some of her tales were quite thin -- more character sketch than story, really -- but even those offered evidence of Wilkinson's considerable promise. The best of them were fully realized and more than satisfying. "Deviled Eggs," about a girl accompanying her mother to her job as a maid in a rich white woman's house, presented a persuasive meditation on the end of innocence. My favorite, "Waiting on the Reaper," about a woman's obsession with death and dying, was absolutely chilling.

Wilkinson's second collection, "Water Street," continues to establish her as an author who deserves wider attention. It is set in Stanford, Ky., where she summered as a child and where the people are "not quite country" and "not city at all." Some of its stories take place in the late '70s and include youthful versions of minor characters who emerge again as adult narrators of stories set in the present. Each of the 14 stories works well enough alone, but their common elements seem designed to illustrate one of Wilkinson's main themes. "We love being close to the people we've known since we entered the world," she writes. "And we hate it. Everybody knows your name here. Everyone has committed the long lists of your kin to memory."

Wilkinson knows that no one really thinks that life in a small town is simpler than life elsewhere. The rhythm of the daily grind and the pace of conversation may be slower, but the people living there will be unable to escape the irresistible human tendency to screw things up. Whereas a 16-year-old headed for trouble in a big city may join a gang or fall prey to the glitzy dangers of life in the fast lane, a kid in Stanford might instead begin hanging out with grown men at Kak Simpson's bootleg house. That's where we find Mouse, the aimless narrator of "Between Men," where he buys his own overpriced beer, "draining each can in tall-man gulps." Obsessively pampered by an overindulgent mother, Mouse went downhill as a teenager and has since become a useless adult, woman-less, friendless and with children -- "two, maybe three, knuckleheads scattered around here and there." Although he has no idea which way is up, Mouse maintains a booze-induced attitude of cheery denial. "You ask the right person and they'd probably say that I'm an alcoholic," he says. "You ask me and I'd say I'm a brotha who has potential."

In Mouse's story and in another called "An Ordinary Man," Wilkinson creates clear-eyed yet ultimately sympathetic portraits of lonely, flawed men who find reality too tough to deal with and women too difficult to love.

Still, it is the female residents of Water Street who are most memorable. Like the women in "Blackberries, Blackberries," they possess certain traits that readers of Wilkinson's work come to expect. They are fond of food and gossip ("Nobody's business is sacred in a small town"). They are usually known by their first and middle names, as in Barbara Jean, Margaret Jean and Autumn Marie. They will mostly likely be heavy-hipped, and the men will prefer them that way.

They struggle with tough jobs in factories, offices and rich people's houses while coping with the unpredictable challenges life throws their way. Those usually arrive in the form of wayward children, back-stabbing pals, cheating husbands or the sudden death of a loved one. Most of them muddle through, although a few give in to depression or madness. More than one character dies from grief on Water Street. Those who stay afloat have developed their own coping strategies. In "Sixteen Confessions of Lois Carter," the white narrator has remained happily married for 30 years to a black man, despite snubbings and hostility from both their families. "I have spent what seems like a lifetime holding my tongue," she confides. She gains solace from interior monologues that reveal her true feelings. "A woman can have private thoughts if she wants to," she says.

Other women in these tales are seldom as hush-mouthed as Lois, but like her they don't always choose to say what's really on their minds. The title character in "The Evolution of Sandy Crawford," for instance, is the hostess of a family reunion whose guests are getting on her one good nerve. While Wilkinson grants us access to the emotions roiling behind her heroine's pleasant facade, Sandy greets her relatives with "her polite smile. Not the fake one she used in church and at work, but the one she saved up all year for her family." Like the protagonists in all of Wilkinson's best stories, Sandy has learned that some things should be kept to oneself, "carried beneath the breastbone, near the heart, for safekeeping."