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FICTION

HER MOST BIZARRE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE by Michael Wilding (W. W. Norton: $17.95; 150 pp.) .

Sometimes a single story can sum up a whole collection. Take “Joe’s Absence.” A young Australian writer named Graham is invited to visit a literary rival named Joe, who is enviably productive and lives with his girlfriend in a shack by the sea. When Graham arrives, Joe isn’t home, but the girlfriend is. Soon she and Graham are skinny-dipping in the surf. There’s a slow, sensual build-up--to infidelity? Violence? No, to a subtler form of betrayal: They read Joe’s manuscripts and smear them with dirty fingerprints and wine.

It may be the attention-grabbing title Michael Wilding stuck on this book. It may be just our Crocodile Dundee preconceptions. But we keep expecting something hairy-chested to happen in these 14 stories, though Wilding’s characters are artists and intellectuals, and in his Australia, as in the rest of the developed world, most people pull their punches. The frontier is dead; the only difference Down Under is that the 1880s and the 1980s ended at about the same time.

Wilding is capable of amusing throwaways, such as the six-paragraph title story and one called “The Girl Behind the Bar Is Reading Jack Kerouac.” He tosses science-fiction ideas on the page like shrimp on the barbie: Suppose an injured man can feel things only after a three-hour delay? Suppose an explorer stumbles across a lost valley that he touches as it is today but sees it as it was centuries ago?

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Still, Wilding’s real gifts lie elsewhere. The two best stories here are experimental in form and, significantly, set in England. “Hector and Freddie” is a romp about two Oxford chums, one foul-mouthed, one blushing, whose competition for women is an elaborate disguise for homosexual feeling. “The West Midland Underground” is a collage of tunnel lore revealing that the 19th-Century railway that the narrator hopes to find is “underground” in the subversive sense of the word: a route to “the crock of gold, the gates of Eden, the doors of bliss.”


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