'Lost in Uttar Pradesh' by Evan S. Connell

Lost in Uttar Pradesh

New and Selected Stories

Evan S. Connell

Counterpoint: 362 pp., $27

WHAT DO we make of Evan S. Connell? In the course of a more-than-50-year career, he has written fiction, essays, biography and even two book-length poems, "Notes From a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel" and "Points for a Compass Rose." His paired novels, "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge," remain among the most insightful portraits of 20th century middle-American suburban life ever written; his biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, "Son of the Morning Star," re-imagines the story of the Old West as a complicated tragedy, marked by narcissism and genocide.

If he's known for anything, it's for these last three books (or, at least, the movies made from them), but perhaps it's more accurate to say he's hardly known at all. A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Connell moved, in 1989, to New Mexico, where he continues to write at age 83. Still, despite the accolades of his contemporaries -- Peter Matthiessen has called him "among the country's foremost writers" -- not to mention his longevity, Connell remains on the periphery of our literary consciousness, marginalized by his eclecticism, his inability to be pinned down.

This is the most obvious contradiction of his career, that, in a culture that likes things easily categorizable, anyone who doesn't stay within the margins runs the risk of being left out. And yet I can't help wondering whether there's more to the equation, if the difficulty has to do with Connell's work itself. The "Bridge" novels and "Son of the Morning Star" aside, after all, he can be a tricky writer, all knees and elbows, his prose asymmetrical and herky-jerky, his stories fragmentary, dense. Is he, then, a great-if-underappreciated author? Or a more problematic talent who has produced a few great books?

Connell's 19th book, "Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories," is not likely to resolve these questions nor allow us a clearer view of his writing life. But then, that may be the point, for this is a willfully diverse collection, intended to give a taste of the author's scope and range. Featuring 22 stories, six new and 16 published between 1954 and 1994, it's something of a Connell primer, highlighting both his recurring characters and his ongoing themes.

There's Muhlbach, who appears in "Arcturus," "Puig's Wife" and "St. Augustine's Pigeon" -- a middle-aged insurance man feeling bound by convention. Or Koerner, the San Francisco bohemian who anchors "Hooker," "Caribbean Provedor," "Assassin" and "The Cuban Missile Crisis": edgy, slightly displaced within his own skin.

Throughout "Lost in Uttar Pradesh," in fact, Connell weaves small clusters of related stories, the flow of narratives mirroring the way time moves through all of us. We first meet J.D., for instance -- a peripatetic wanderer -- in "The Walls of Ávila," a 1955 story about the resentment his old friends feel toward his unorthodox way of life, then reencounter him in "The Palace of the Moorish Kings," written nearly 20 years later, in which J.D. has decided to settle down.

This tension between the rebel and straight society is a key motif here, as it is in much of Connell's work. "There are times," Muhlbach reflects, "a man must liberate his soul, otherwise he's in for trouble." Coming at the center of the book, that line feels like a fulcrum, an axis point, a pole around which the rest of Connell's writing might revolve.

That's a fascinating notion, to frame a collection as a series of overlapping narrative cycles, and when it works it adds depth and nuance. The three pieces about Proctor Bemis, "lately retired CEO of Bemis Securities," resonate with the hypocrisies of middle-class suburbia, the dissatisfactions of the country club, the viciousness of politics, the social divide.

In "Election Eve," one of the new stories, Bemis and his wife attend a costume party the night before the 2000 election; everyone is expected to come as a past president. It's a delightfully absurd setup -- until a man dressed as Abe Lincoln starts haranguing Bemis to "chase those Democrat scalawags out of town." Eventually, Bemis launches into his own harangue, ranting about Vietnam and Lebanon, atomic bombs and SDI. "Ladies and gentlemen," he declares, "while destitute citizens rummage through garbage cans and prowl the streets, what does our government do? It sheathes the Pentagon in gold. I submit to you that we could at this moment vaporize whatever creeps, crawls, flies, walks, hops, slithers, or jumps. I submit to you that we could do this thirty times over. Meanwhile, Republicans wring their hands, claiming we are defenseless, ill-prepared, at the mercy of two-bit tyrants."

Here, we see another side of Connell: the editorializer using his stories to comment on the broader world. This is something a lot of authors tend to sidestep, and with good reason. For Connell, however, it's all part of the aesthetic: "Montesquieu said one must be truthful in all things, even when they concern one's own country. I do believe that," he noted in a 2001 Bookforum interview. And Bemis' outburst at the party works not only in conjunction with the earlier story "Proctor Bemis" but also with the later one, "Mrs. Proctor Bemis," in which the character's deeply conservative wife offers a counterpoint.

What Connell is suggesting is that everything -- society, politics, the insiders and the outsiders -- is the proper purview of the writer, that literature ought to encompass it all. This brings to mind his achievement in "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge," where he told the same story twice, through two distinct personas, and in so doing managed to illuminate the complexity of even the most mundane lives.

Where "Lost in Uttar Pradesh" gets in trouble is with Connell's exploration of his characters' inner lives. This has always been his weak spot -- the machinations of the soul. More than once, he gets lost in interior reflection, as his protagonists build elaborate castles in the air.

"Puig's Wife" involves an uncomfortable visit Muhlbach makes to the wife of his old college roommate in a hotel room; is she trying to seduce him, or has he simply misread the signs? That's a fine setup, but Connell derails it by allowing his protagonist to slip into a series of digressions in which he imagines the woman as a prostitute or worse. In "Caribbean Provedor," Koerner has a similar reaction on a cruise ship, turning a drink at the bar into a potential life-and-death encounter with a smuggler who, he is convinced, believes he is a customs agent. That there is no evidence for this makes no difference to Connell; he is interested in the process that brings a character to this level of self-deception, the interplay of paranoia and belief. But the trouble is that Connell is not a psychological writer, which leaves these intrigues flat and utterly contrived.

There is one other issue with "Lost in Uttar Pradesh": It's the third volume of collected or selected stories Connell has published in the last 28 years. Not only that, there's substantial overlap between it and its precursors, "St. Augustine's Pigeon" (1980) and "The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell" (1995). Every one of the older stories here has appeared in one or the other of those books, and many of them in both. To be fair, both collections are out of print, but if the purpose of the book is to showcase the half-dozen newer pieces, I'm not sure that's enough. This is not a matter of quality; some of the best writing here -- "Assassin," the title story, "The Land Where Lemon Trees Bloom" -- is the most recent. Still, it feels forced, inauthentic even, for a "New and Selected Stories" to rely so heavily on so much previously anthologized work.

In the end, I suppose, that's one more piece of the Connell conundrum. Or maybe it's just a sign of a writer who has moved away from short fiction as he's grown more interested in other forms. Whatever the reason, "Lost in Uttar Pradesh" offers an unsettled glimpse of its author, with whom we can't quite come to terms. Brilliant in places, frustrating in others, enigmatic in both content and conception, it's a vivid metaphor for Connell's career. *

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