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Getting to Know the Weather by Pamela Painter (117 pp.) : HONEYMOON by Merrill Joan Gerber (126 pp.) : THE CHRISTMAS WIFE by Helen Norris (136 pp.) : TENTACLES OF UNREASON by Joan Givner (134 pp.) : (University of Illinois: $11.95 each)

December 08, 1985|Alan Cheuse | Cheuse is the author of "Candace & Other Stories" and "The Bohemians," a novel. and

Volumes 37 through 40 in the 10th anniversary year of the University of Illinois short story publishing project: Here they are. Since 1975, this ambitious Midwestern press has brought out collections by writers we have since heard from again and again--Philip F. O'Connor, Stephen Minot, Daniel Curley, Scott Sanders, David Long--and by writers who seem to have slipped into obscurity, or at least long silence, since their appearance--John Stewart, Lester Goldberg, Robert Henson--in this series. Illinois has brought out experimental writers--Russell Banks, Jonathan Baumbauch--and the most traditional--Levi Peterson, Nancy Huddleston Packer. And in the pseudonymous B. Wongar, it even added, unwittingly, to be sure, to an international hoax (by publishing the stories of this Australian of European background as those of an aboriginal).

What's amazing in all this is that looking back on 40 volumes and approximately 400 stories, we can see the series just picking up momentum. Who would have imagined a decade ago, when the lucrative magazine market for short stories had dried up almost to its current state in which it resembles the Mohave in high summer, that 40 fiction writers would persevere in the creation of a form everyone was willing to declare an artifact for the museum or an oddity for the underground press? But push on and struggle with the form they did--and it seems clear with hindsight that the Illinois Press, with the waning in commercial publishing of interest in story collections by relatively unknown writers, has played a large role in keeping the public eye on short fiction.

And now as the short form has become fashionable, even popular again, the editors of this series can feel proud of their part in the preservation of the strength of the genre.

But all this said, it's not much of a pleasure to have to turn the spotlight on the four latest volumes in the series, only one of which truly demonstrates the engaging sense of language, hypnotic power of storytelling, and breadth (or at least intuition) of experience that one expects from first-rate fiction writers, the kind of gathered force behind the tales that stay in one's mind for years afterward. I'm thinking here of contemporary work as well as classics, stories such as David Quammen's astonishing hunting story, "Walking Out," from Tri-Quarterly a few years back; Amy Hempel's brief but magical "San Francisco," from Harper's; Tobias Wolff's "Desert Breakdown, 1968," from the Atlantic; Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing," from Ploughshares, and the incomparable maestro Wright Morris' "Glimpse Into Another Country," from The New Yorker, to name some of the finest. And when you do think of stories such as these--and I could name a dozen others if I had more space--you have to ask yourself how it could be possible that anyone other than an editor with a worried eye on his conglomerate's accountant could worry about the vitality of the short-story form. Novels buoy us up through the long evening. Stories keep us going from hour to hour during the hard night's day.

Of these four volumes, Pamela Painter's "Getting to Know the Weather" has several stories that stay with you, and will stay with you over the years. The first of these is "The Next Time I Meet Buddy Rich," a story about the importance of timing and inspiration and perseverance in the life of a road-house drummer. Another is "Intruders of Sleepless Nights," perhaps the best story about marriage--and how it can fall apart--that I've read in a decade. Seen from the point of view of a burglar who breaks into their home in the middle of the night, a husband and a wife behave like criminals of the highest order themselves--and the words that pass from the wife's lips to the burglar's ears are the dialogue from high tragedy or the best of film noire or both. I'll remember these. I'll watch for new Painter stories whenever I turn pages in magazines. Painter is the real thing. Read her.

The other volumes read fitfully, blandly beside hers. A few stories stand out in Merrill Joan Gerber's collection--the title story, "Honeymoon," which gives us the sad comedy of a young L. A. woman on a trip to Las Vegas with a man much older than herself, and "Tragic Lives," a family chronicle of the World War II epoch--but even though some of the other work here, such as "At the Fence," has won prizes, I wasn't stirred.

Perhaps it's me--but that's why I included some favorites of recent years as a litmus test--but the stories in Helen Norris' volume read more like curiosities of literature than vital art, like tales you might buy in a quaint roadside gift shop. They've won several O'Henry awards in recent years, and editors with normal good taste such as George Core at "The Sewanee Review" have seen fit to publish them. But I yawned. The same thing happened to me when I tried to read Joan Givner's stories. No, sorry, I slept through what were supposed to be funny, satirical treatments of English school life, North American academic life. I didn't get the jokes.

What's the hyperbole count here? Zero. I slept. To you out there who love stories, I say, wake up and read Pamela Painter.

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