Picks and Pans Review: The Neumiller Stories

updated 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Larry Woiwode

Few storytellers project their characters onto such punishingly bleak landscapes as Larry Woiwode. But then few authors extract as much power from the emotional strife of simple daily life.

In these 13 stories, written between 1964 and 1989, Woiwode focuses mostly on grim events that bespatter three generations of an American family.

In "Burial" a son returns to his North Dakota hometown to bury his father and discovers how estranged he has become from the values his father honored. "Firstborn" depicts an unraveling marriage and the guilt each spouse feels when their first child dies during delivery.

Still, the Neumillers are tough. Their dreams get squashed, their communications fail, and Murphy's law rules their karma. Yet they remain stubborn, recondite souls able to hunker through adversity.

Not all these stories dwell on somber subjects. "The Suitor," a humorous tale about a marriage proposal, is a welcome oasis. A constant pleasure is Woiwode's lyrically precise language. In "Pneumonia" Woiwode describes a child stricken by a potentially lethal illness. "His lips split by fever, taste like nickels. His bones are of ice and the ice is wrapped with layers of hot flesh. His head is filled with fluid that exerts pressure at the base of his nose, and his eyes are dry as paper." That kind of lyricism softens an otherwise difficult, at times slow-paced collection. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95)

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