Picks and Pans Review: Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mark Strand

Imagine a writer who combines Woody Allen's sense of exaggeration—his ability to extrapolate situations to their funniest extremes—with the perspective and self-consciously elegant language of John Updike. That's right, you'd have a creature who is never very likely to walk the face of the earth. But Strand, 51, the prize-winning Canadian-born poet and professor of English at the University of Utah, comes close to that model. The stories in this first collection, originally printed in Vogue, The New Yorker and Michigan Quarterly Review, vary widely. Yet several of them share a spirit of stubborn determination in the pursuit of idiosyncratic meanings of happiness. In one story a U.S. President noted mainly for reading Chekhov to his Cabinet and creating the "National Museum of Weather," resigns. In his farewell speech he says, "From the beginning I have preached melancholy and invention, nostalgia and prophecy. The languors of art have been my haven. More than anything I wished to be the first truly modern President, and to make my term the free extension of impulse and the preservation of chance." Another tale is about a man who says he has been married five times and in love six, with none of the 11 experiences overlapping. Then there's Stanley R., the killer poet who murders his parents so he can write a poem about the experience. Sometimes the impact of the stories is diluted because Strand seems to take a perverse pleasure in fabricating unlikely turns of event. (In the middle of a neo-Greek myth about a hunter named Cephalus, who is in love with women named Aurora and Procris, somebody named Betty shows up. And then she turns into a half-elephant.) Few writers, though, can manage to make one of man's favorite pastimes—futile longing—seem to be so hilarious, touching and ultimately admirable as Strand does, in very succinct ways. (Knopf, $11.95)

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