Picks and Pans Review: Republican Party Reptile
updated 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/08/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Mr. O'Rourke doth protest too much. Even though he admits that "funny Republican" is an oxymoron, he's determined to squeeze his own hilarious brand of hedonistic anarchy into the conservative camp. Introducing this collection of magazine pieces for, among others, National Lampoon, Car and Driver and Rolling Stone, O'Rourke pretends to speak for a new corner of the right wing where Ike wears a Mohawk and the hard-partying citizenry opposes "government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws...all tiny Third World countries that don't have banking secrecy laws, aerobics...and jewelry on men." (They favor "guns, drugs, fast cars, free love, a strong military with spiffy uniforms.") It won't wash. Though O'Rourke implies he spent the 20 years since his last big peace march on a redneck bender, no amount of old scotch and young women seem capable of completely desensitizing him to venality, violence and injustice. Take away the loaner Ferrari and airlift him into Manila or Beirut—as Rolling Stone had the sense to do in recent years—and O'Rourke will lace eloquently into the obscenities of latter day imperialism. Imelda Marcos is "crazy as a rat in a coffee can," her palace decor evidence of a "Las Vegas interior designer forced to lower his standards of taste at gunpoint." It's clearly impossible to read O'Rourke without thinking of the grand old man of gonzo, Hunter Thompson. O'Rourke is Thompson's natural heir, a born reporter who really only hits his stride when he goes after the acid realities buried under the euphemisms. Compared to Thompson's reportage O'Rourke's satirical pieces seem contrived, though they have their moments. ("Apollo is the god of handguns, Blue Cross coverage and elaborate home stereo systems," we learn in "Myths Made Modern," also of "getting a dark and even tan.") Lord knows, O'Rourke's drunken, misogynistic persona soon begins to pale. But such reptilian qualities just make you a jerk, not a Republican—and O'Rourke at his best is so good you're tempted to forgive even that. (Atlantic Monthly Press, paper, $6.95)
Someone has suggested that the current boom in short story publishing is the result of 30 years of television and America's shortened attention span. Another theory holds that the novel has become a bit of a fuddy-duddy. Short fiction is where the action is. The form encourages a variety of styles, lengths and voices, and such experimentation provides a vitality that is especially rewarding. Here are some recent examples: The introduction to American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks (Delacorte, $19.95), suggests that "talent, even genius, is also the gift of seeing what everyone else has seen, but seeing it more clearly, from all sides." A good short story provides this kind of vision with economy. The writers with stories in Masterpieces include Carver, Frank Conroy, Ann Beattie, Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and other familiar names. Prize Stories 1987: The O. Henry Awards (Double-day, $17.95), now in its 67th year, opens this new volume with an absolute dazzler: "Fleur," by Louise Erdrich, a tale of a Chippewa woman who twice survives drowning and works in a slaughterhouse. The setting is the same as that in her novel The Beet Queen. Joyce Johnson's "The Children's Wing," which shares the top 1987 O. Henry award with Erdrich's story, is a moving account by a mother of her child's stay in a hospital and the effect an older, troubled patient has on the narrator.
Of the 30 books John Updike has written, seven have been collections of short stories, and his eighth (Knopf, $17.95) is Trust Me. In the title story a father tells his small son to jump into a swimming pool, then fails to catch him. It is a moment that returns in a series of life's betrayals. If Updike's people have become wealthier, older, more troubled, with ex-wives and puzzling children, his prose has never been finer. Mary Gordon's first collection of stories, Temporary Shelter (Random House, $16.95), is concerned with the same people—Irish Catholics, religious Jews—who suffer in her novels. In the title story, a Polish boy grows up in a wealthy home where his mother works as housekeeper. He has a close relationship with the rich man's daughter until her father knows they must be separated. Gordon can come up with marvelous moments such as one in "Delia" when a little girl takes a silver dollar a beloved uncle has given her and puts it under the elastic in her panties, to feel the cool metal grow warm.
While Updike and Gordon continue with great skill to modernize the conventional short story, Louis Auchincloss is an interesting throwback. In his new volume, Skinny Island (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95), Auchincloss fits style to subject. The events in the first story, "A Diary of Old New York," occur on New Year's Day in 1875 and concern an aging banker who learns that land exploiters and crass businessmen are taking over the city. The stories continue through the years until the last, set in the 1980s, which is called "The Takeover." A ruthless businessman takes the wife of an art dealer and then takes over the gallery as well. Readers who admire the world Edith Wharton wrote about 65 years ago will find these Auchincloss stories similarly satisfying.
Like more traditional writers, Frederick Barthelme is adept at providing details to fix his characters in time and place. In his new collection, Chroma (Simon and Schuster, $14.95), the world is suburbs, trailers, shopping malls, Exxon stations, Danskins, True cigarettes, Baby Ruths, Nat King Cole records, Donkey Kong, Vicks VapoRub, Rolaids. His characters are named Rita, Binnie, Cleo, Cheryl, Tracy, Park and Heather, and they are people who suddenly realize that a fried chicken shop "has been there 30 years, so all the things wrong with it are deeply wrong, which seems to make it O.K."
Like Barthelme, Yannick Murphy is a minimalist (as novelist John Barth has called such contemporary writers), but she gives a reader far less. Stories in Another Language (Knopf, $15.95) is made up of fragments, jarring, disjointed phrases and images, many from a little girl's childhood. In "The Slit," a playmate's death (killed by a car?) and funeral are described with games mixed in. The title story is set in China, perhaps. In Murphy's stories, people eat kittens, and there is blood and violence again and again. Murphy is maddeningly elliptical. How old are her characters? Where are they? So much basic information is withheld that the vivid, shocking moments seem curiously remote. One of Murphy's stories appears again in a lively new paperback, The Quarterly (Vintage, $6.95). This book includes Amy Hempel's "The Harvest," which seems almost as unnourishing as Murphy's fiction, but The Quarterly does have more substantial pieces such as Tom Spanbauer's "Sea Animals," an affecting account of a death on a day when everything on the farm went wrong. Janet Kauffman's strange "Anton's Album," with its numbered sections, is so rich in concrete details her experimental presentation seems apt.
Isabel Huggan has created an unforgettable little girl for her The Elizabeth Stories (Viking, $15.95). The events in Elizabeth's life—her well-meaning parents are horrors—are every bit as shocking as anything that happens in the Murphy collection, but Huggan provides a rich, small town background and an occasional flash of wit and warmth. Sue Miller's first novel, The Good Mother, got some attention last year, so now there is a volume of her short fiction, Inventing the Abbotts and Other Stories (Harper & Row, $15.95). Miller is good at details about infants and small children, less so with her men, who invariably are obsessed with sex. These stories all deal in some way with sex—not love, but erotica. The women in two of the stories have problems with nude photographs of themselves. But all the pieces are marred by contrivances and seem vaguely shopworn. The least successful story is the first, which is narrated by a man. His "voice" seems phony, and it distracts as he tells about an older brother who sleeps with each of three daughters in the town's richest family.
A collection by New Yorker editor Daniel Menaker, The Old Left (Knopf, $15.95), has some splendid moments of genial humor and a special richness. In the title story, a teacher at Columbia tries to help his Uncle Sol, an ancient, irascible Communist who is surprisingly lovable. Most touching is "Brothers," in which a young man suffers terrible guilt for an accident that ends in tragedy.
Every one of these books has stories of more than routine interest, but the discovery of this season is a collection called Spirits and Other Stories (Linden, $15.95) by Richard Bausch. Like the characters in an Updike or a Barthelme story, Bausch's people are very much alive in the world he creates for them. In the title story, a young man going for his first teaching job is taken in by the famous prof on campus, an alcoholic seducer who was a JFK hanger-on. "All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona," is about an alcoholic father who loses his wife and children, and "Police Dreams" is a nightmare tale of a young couple with two small sons who cannot find a way to patch up their failing marriage.
The generous assortment of story collections right now is very much like the wide variety of automobiles for sale. From Updike (Mercedes) to Auchincloss (Lincoln) to Barthelme (BMW) to Gordon (Volvo) to Bausch (Porsche) to one of the anthologies (a used-car lot), there is something for everyone.