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Entertaining Angels, Unaware : HERE’S YOUR HAT WHAT’S YOUR HURRY, <i> By Elizabeth McCracken (Turtle Bay Books: $20; 224 pp.)</i>

<i> A new collection of Prose's short stories, "The Peaceable Kingdom," will be published in the fall</i>

Reading Elizabeth McCracken’s appealing and impressive first collection of stories, “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry,” is rather like spending a day in the company of a dear friend who just may or may not be a compulsive, habitual liar. As the visit progresses, her accounts become more elaborate, layered with subplots and details to strong-arm you into credence. By the end of the afternoon you are not only persuaded but conscious that you have been told something meaningful.

This is not to suggest that there are inauthentic or false notes in Elizabeth McCracken’s stories; but they are undeniably eccentric, often built around plots that, summarized, might sound far-fetched. Yet McCracken’s attention to detail and to the truths of the human heart, her ear for the rhythms of speech, her wry, straightforward and common-sensical literary voice ground even the most fantastic tales in solid, quotidian reality. Her unusual, eccentric (and even freakish) characters strike us as familiar and sympathetic; her most fantastic narratives come to seem like plain reportage.

In the opening story, “It’s Bad Luck to Die,” a woman marries a tattoo artist who uses her as his canvas: “Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on three times: ascending on one thigh, crucified on the other, and conducting a miniature apocalypse beneath the right shoulder. It wasn’t religion that put them there; it was Tiny, my husband. I have a Buddha round back, too. He was going to give me Moses parting the Red Sea, but I was running out of space.” And indeed we do wonder, but our questions are soon answered by a lovely scene in which the narrator first meets Tiny, a scene that allows McCracken to display her gift for dialogue: Her characters really seem to be talking to each other--yet never say what one might expect.

What makes these fictions so striking is not only Elizabeth McCracken’s powers of invention, but her span--the breadth of what she is able to make convincing. Her unlikely heroes and heroines include an old man just released from prison after spending much of his life in jail for the murder of his wife; a girl whose mother has an unhelpful fascination with the lives of child prodigies; two children whose father populates their house with a variety of “strays, mostly the human sort: drunks, debtors, divorcees, deadbeats"; two men who form a friendship based on the fact--which they never mention--that their close relatives are roommates at a treatment center for head-injury patients.

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McCracken’s range is not simply wide but deep, and these frequently incandescent stories toss off sparks that illuminate our view of these lives--and of our own. Reassuring her younger brother that their absent father will return, a girl thinks: “I felt pretty grown-up, being able to tell comforting falsehoods to a child.” Gradually one comes to realize that, for all the playfulness of these fictions, they’re about something weighty, important and even profound.

Themes re-occur and resonate, echoing between stories. McCracken is writing about families, about the bonds of love and attachment, about what makes our lives seem real to us. Quite a few of the stories have a religious (though unsanctimonious) dimension. Explaining why he’s filled their house with oddballs, a father quotes the Bible: “Some have entertained angels, unaware.” Further discussion ensues: “It’s about hospitality. Being nice to the downtrodden,” Dad said. “It’s about God,” said Bobby.

There’s a unique voice, a real grace of language here--a knack for quirky, precise description, for example: “With her copper curls, her freckles exactly the same color, white skin underneath, Chris reminded Aunt Helen Beck of some pale cake left too long in the oven. She even smelled that way, delicate and warm, as if a sudden loud noise could make her collapse.” There are also flaws, as one would expect of a first book of fiction--moments when a story strains too hard or becomes evasive, when the writer settles for something easier, more facile than genuine wit.

One hopes that Elizabeth McCracken will resist her publisher’s attempt to promote her as a second Katherine Dunn (author of the novel “Geek Love”), for the weakest of these tales is the one that deals with the domestic lives of circus freaks. The best story, a perfect gem called “June,” about a childhood friendship, is firmly anchored in what anyone would recognize as gritty reality, though the horrific aspects of so-called “normal” life soon reveal themselves, unforgettably. As with the rest of these strong and promising fictions, “June” achieves its effects through McCracken’s humor, her playfulness, her engaging voice, her sharp eye for those moments when the grotesque hides behind the unexceptional--and her ability to persuade us that what appears most unlikely is often most illuminating, and frequently most true.

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