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Spiders on His Eyelids : THE WARS OF HEAVEN <i> by Richard Currey (Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence: $18.95; 160 pp.; 0-395-50227-6) </i>

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If good writing alone were enough to propel fiction, this book would fly off into the stratosphere. Richard Currey’s “The Wars of Heaven” is an elegantly poetic tribute to the sort of strength of character and dominance of subject that Hemingway, Wolfe or even Proust would (probably) grudgingly admire.

Here are six stories and a novella with grit, guts and that old-time sense of word-sparing, stark, locomotive-driven prose-poetry that would set to thumping the heart of any creative-writing teacher, let alone any lover of the English language.

Like the rest of these tales, Currey sets the first, “Tyler’s Ballad,” in the rural West Virginia countryside of 50 or so years ago. Tyler, a railroad engineer, meditates on his young wife’s suicide. The power, and the point, of this very short vignette is the ignorant and uneducated Tyler’s realization of the impact of her death upon himself.

“Old Fires” depicts the confused anguish of James Heard after his brother’s death in a coal-mine explosion. In the final scene, Heard finds himself looking at an angel he once hand-carved and trying to connect it with the loss of his younger brother. “The angel gazed on the vegetables as if they were the mysterious fruits of heaven, and James Heard looked at the accidental tableau feeling it nearly meant something, the way the angel’s hands lifted with just the right knowledge.”

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“Believer’s Flood” has to do with an aging miner’s recollection of an encounter with coal-company strikebreakers who had tried to rough him up, or worse. He won the fight, and even now, so many years after, when he’s reduced to retirement and living off an oxygen bottle, it seems that was the biggest thing he’d ever done in his life:

“The mine wars were like nothing we had ever seen. God-awful, bloody, terrifying to the bone. Red Jacket Coal and Coke showed its colors well enough and just as we expected hired in hoods and killers, Baldwin-Felts detectives for the most part. We all went against each other, baseball bats and rocks and knives and finally guns.”

The tale of “Jackson Stillwell” is a poignant account of a retarded man who lives with his aging mother and collects rabbits’ feet until he decides to look up a woman whom he remembers as a love interest when they were children. Embarrassing himself by sneaking into her room, he is humiliated and terrified upon discovering that the woman has long since married, and her younger sister occupies the room now. As his old mother grieves, Jackson hides out in the countryside. “Sleeping in leaves, he woke with spiders on his eyelids. Morning birds called in the reaches of trees.”

Then there is “Rock of Ages,” in which pre-adolescent Luther is forced to look after his retarded little brother by a drunken father who is bitter over his wife’s death in childbirth. In the end, the younger brother dies, but not before Luther drags him miles down the mountainside in a vain attempt to get him to a doctor.

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“The old man leaves the house with a bottle. Luther on his back in bed, alone in the cabin for the first time in his life, wonders if the old man is celebrating at the roadhouse down the mountain, telling everybody he is free at last of the little man who killed his wife these six years ago and stayed on to do nothing but . . . bay at the moon like some kind of hopeless animal every single night.”

“The Wars of Heaven” recounts the dying thoughts of Rockwell Lee Jr., a robber, killed at last in a gun battle with the sheriff’s posse. It is set in the form of a conversation with Rockwell’s aging mother, in which he tries to explain what happened to turn him bad. This is a powerful and disturbing story of the tone, quality and caliber of James Jones’ “The Ice Cream Headache.”

Finally there is the novella, “The Love of a Good Woman,” about 100 pages of an episode in the life of Delbert Keene, loony-tune and sometimes circus clown who gets thrown in the clink for helping out a pregnant woman. Basically, this is a story that goes nowhere fast, as most novellas do, although it has its amusing moments.

The problem with novellas is that, like one-act plays, they are rarely satisfying; even if they are, they beg the question, “Why not more?”

Currey’s appreciation of the world, if this book is any indication, is that it’s a mean and twisted place to be--which might be so.

I violate now the most basic of rules I established with myself when I agreed to do an occasional book review: never try to tell another writer how to do his job! But with all his talent, as evidenced here, I sincerely wish that Currey will next put together a novel in long form, with a larger picture, and more drawn-out characters and a comprehensive view of what all he has to say.


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