Picks and Pans Review: Dreams of Distant Lives

updated 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lee K. Abbott

In his fourth collection of short stories, Abbott gets off on an awkward foot with "The View of Me from Mars," which paraphrases at length (with acknowledgment) another writer's story—Susan Kenney's "Mirrors." What's disconcerting about this is that it robs the reader for a time of the real joy of Abbott's writing: his illuminating first-person narratives.

His characters, typically taxpaying, golf-playing family men residing in New Mexico, operate with charming, hard-earned little gyroscopes in this topsyturvy world of ours. They wander around musing in a neighborhood that abuts hard on wisdom but isn't quite there. Not much usually happens on the plot front; Abbott is more interested in his characters' inner lives. His stories are hermetic, in the vein of Frederick Barthelme's—but better lighted. He does wondrous, Thomas McGuane-like things with language, as in "Here in Time and Not": "On my radio was the polite redneck music I go for, what can be yodeled through the nose about betrayal and getting caught."

This is not Abbott's best collection. He often seems at pains to sound like himself, and many passages seem forced. But after a third of the book he hits his stride—on "Revolutionaries," about '60s radicals in the '80s facing deracinated ideals and resentful children, or "Once Upon a Time," in which a marriage comes unhinged. In these stories, Abbott's language and narrative techniques shift into focus like a kaleidoscope, creating a brilliant, prismatic pattern. It's still an off group of stories for him, but that's akin to saying Don Mat-tingly had an off year in 1988 because he hit only .311. Abbott is still a great stylist and a remarkably resourceful writer. (Putnam, $18.95)

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