RESCUE, S tories , by Stephen O'Connor (Harmony/Crown: $17.95; 192 pp.)

Stephen O'Connor is one of several promising young artists, from film director Bruce Robinson ("How To Get Ahead in Advertising") to writer Andrei Codrescu, who are using surrealism not to bypass our dulling consciousness in search of deeper truth, but to avoid the limitations of traditional storytelling. O'Connor in particular eschews the narrative because he disputes its assumption that characters evolve over time, affecting and being affected by their environment. Emphasizing images rather than action, moods rather than plot, O'Connor creates impotent characters who drift in the subjectivity of the moment, able to value something only once they have lost it.

In the title story, for instance, a skier injured in an avalanche hallucinates about his wife; he imagines her taking him home (whose richness is suggested by overflowing baskets of apples and mangoes), where he rediscovers his "infinite" love for her, "primal and vast." Suddenly, though, she is gone: "I wanted to run after her. . . . I was paralyzed by the awful thought that I might never find her and she would never know this vast, wonderful and terrible feeling that I had for her."

Several other stories also evoke feelings of longing, but carry subtle moral messages as well. In "Help," for example, a man is seduced by a a seductive woman he sees leaning on a bridge railing. When she jumps, he follows, hitting "water . . . so cold that I felt like I'd crashed face first onto solid ice." He is carried away from land by the same strong current that is taking the girl away. An original depiction of the way an obsession can sweep us off sure footing, "Help" also elaborates on the theme of good and evil which is established by quotes from Job that introduce some chapters. O'Connor highlights the often-deceptive appeal of purity (suggested by the woman's "shiny and pink feet") in an apocalyptic age (cinders as well as shards of glass cover the bridge).

O'Connor's best evocation of our shaky sense of morality is "The Only Life," a story set in the future in which a pest control agent discovers Alfred Zot, the administrator responsible for the last world war--only Zot, overwhelmed by guilt, has turned into a rat. The agent spares Zot out of sympathy, but begins using his moral outrage at Zot selectively, sparing it when Zot's knowledge of an ancient water main where rodents drink (the "Rat Riviera") helps him win a promotion, but summoning it when it becomes politic for him to kill the creature.

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