Wednesday, July 16, 2003

STRANGERS IN PARADISE: stories by Lee K. Abbott
Ohio State University Press

It's a sad tale indeed told on the back of this quality paperback. It starts with a sticky yellow tag on top of the bar code, with the university bookstore's name, the designation TRADE BOOK and the price of $14.95. It degenerates quickly to the florescent orange tag marked CLEARANCE, and the $6.72 price.

But wait, it gets worse. There is a cluster of orange tags asymmetrically obscuring the author's bio, marking the downward spiral of prices--$5.04, $2.49, until the final insult: 99.

At which point, embarrassed for the author (though I'd never heard of him) I bought it. I was not as incensed (and of course, in another way pleased) when I snapped up similiarly defaced poetry collections by Joseph Brodsky and John Ashberry on the same sale table, though in another year (and paid a somewhat higher price for each.) But I did have the feeling that I owed it to the author to spare him further humiliation.

Good for me, and lucky me. These are eye-opening stories. The parts of the bio I can read between the stickers says that Lee K. Abbott teaches English at Ohio State, and has several other story collections. I wonder what they're like. This one is pretty remarkable.

It's no mere collection: the stories are linked in various ways. All seem to be about the same contemporary southwestern town, or quasi-suburb without an urb, as so much of America is these days. Characters recur. Golf recurs a lot. So does drinking and the varieties of drunken experience, religious and otherwise. Something that somebody says in one story becomes the title of another story. The action moves back to the Vietnam war, forward to a dystopian future.

This is Richard Ford and Raymond Carver territory, but the language is more DeLillo and Pynchon. DeLillo in suburbia? Hard to imagine it, but it probably would be something like these stories.

There's moral weight to it all, and lots of dark comedy. The language dazzles, and over the course of the stories (the golf course of the stories?) some of it becomes incantatory, a kind of personal shorthand, a vague reaching out to a vanishing moral universe.

What else can I say? The fate of this book and this author pretty much confirms the dourness of society that his heroes try valiantly to deal with. (Not just the sale table, but the general obscurity.) These are not cheerful and not depressing stories, they bespeak a tragic sort of heroic impulse, of men (usually) trying to find delight and meaning in willfully and institutionalized, proud cultural wastelands, with very nice golf courses.

Sinclair Lewis wrote with pathos and a good deal of satirical anger about what we now call babbitry. Fat lot of good it did, and the consequences are in the truths of these stories. Anger is pointless anymore. On the mark satire should lead to a general recognition and quick change of the obvious absurdity. But it hardly ever does. The emperor has no clothes? Yeah? Well my taxes are low, business is good, don't rock the boat, if we have to see a coat of many colors we damn well will.

So the game goes on, people are born into it and have to try to find some happiness in what they’re given. It involves a fair amount of self-deception, perhaps more than can be sustained. You get that sense in these stories.

Maybe you won't get the great deal on this book I fortunately and unfortunately did, but these stories are worth finding and reading.