The Next New World by Bob Shacochis (Crown: $16.95; 209 pages)
There is a difference between what a writer chooses to write and what he or she cannot help but write. Even with a gifted writer, the difference shows.
Bob Shacochis, who won a National Book Award three years ago for "Easy in the Islands," has come out with a new collection of short stories. A divide seems to run down it, marking off two very unequal parts.
Six of the stories, possessing various degrees of imagination and gracefulness, seem, nonetheless, to be almost exercises in a variety of genres, voices and locales. The seventh, "Celebrations of the New World," all but burns on the page, clamoring to be heard.
Two of the six deal with old people so near death that they inhabit a kind of ghost-ridden border territory. In "Les Femmes Creoles," two ancient sisters on a derelict Caribbean plantation lie in bed and receive, imagining them to be lovers, a vagrant soldier from a colonial occupying force, and a black guerrilla.
In "Where Pelham Fell," a retired army officer in his 80s drives perilously about the Virginia countryside, accompanied by ghostly detachments of the Confederate Army. A farmer gives him two sacks of bones; the old colonel tries to put them together in his shed, while his wife dozes inside the house. Dying, the colonel hears the bones rattle, summoning him to lead them.
A Contrived Air to Them
The quality of this pair is as delicate and haunting as their subject, yet they have a contrived air to them. The haunting is an effect achieved, not grown.
Two other stories depict men late in middle-age, with illusions at sunset, and delusions not yet at moonrise. The caretaker in "Stolen Kiss" has fantasies about the woman who spends summers in one of the beach houses he looks after. He finds a lip-mark imprinted on a post of her porch; he kisses it and paints it over.
In "Picture of the Week," a former beatnik whose companion has just died of cancer sells the Caribbean property they had settled in, and prepares to return north, "to enter, like the millions before him in these times, the draft of cooling current." Both stories provide recipes for a kind of bitter-sweet jolt, but not the jolt itself.
Another pair of stories--one about a Galveston harmonica player who loses his girlfriend in grisly fashion, the second about a Cape Hatteras waterman who is identified as a Nazi war criminal after catching a record-size fish--are melodramatic and flat. A pastiche about Shakespeare playing Hamlet's father's ghost is flatter still.
"Celebrations" stands in shining and welcome contrast. Its setting is the meeting of two disastrously different families, a year or two after the son of one family and the daughter of the other have married.
The husband's family--he is the narrator--are well-to-do Midwesterners who arrive for the reunion in a small flotilla of station wagons, campers and Cadillacs. "They are clean and slow, responsible and readily impressed," the narrator says of his family.
The wife's family, which lives in Philadelphia where the reunion takes place, is Lebanese-American. The dinner is cross-cultural comedy; the visitors nibble fearfully at the platters of tabbouleh and skewered meat. Gloria, the Midwestern mother, tries to civilize things by placing tiny marshmallows stuck with American Flags on each plate.
But the ethnic chaos is only background. Bernie, the host, is a retired professor who is developing Alzheimer's disease; he flickers tragically between awareness and absence. Rosie, his decisive and energetic wife, is nearing a decision to commit him to a nursing home. The dinner puts Bernie and his condition on display for their daughter, Lorraine, and her husband, the latter reflects, so that they will be able to reassure Rosie: "Yes, you're doing the right thing."
The transaction is treated acutely but with tenderness. The entire story, in fact, is both unsparing and compassionate. Comedy and awfulness jostle each other, particularly when Bernie's brother, Joachim, flies in from Mexico and turns out to be as unstable as the host.
The two old men flare up, wander, return, and generally exacerbate the dinner-table disaster. In between storms, they hold hands and tell stories about their childhood. And at the end, the addled pair retreats into a closet to smoke cigars. The narrator joins them, and after awhile, so does Lorraine and the baby she's nursing.
It's absurd, and entirely right. Life designs closets to help us bear what we can't bear. I suspect that Shacochis' closet will open onto a future novel.