Rumor and Other Stories by James Robison (Summit: $14.95; 169 pp.)

December 08, 1985|Amy Hempel | Hempel's collection of stories, "Reasons to Live," was published this year by Knopf

Think of a short story as a connect-the-dots picture. If you can "get the picture" without having to connect every last dot, you are the target reader for "Rumor and Other Stories," a first collection by James Robison.

These carefully crafted stories are trimmed of anything extraneous; the author gives you credit for knowing that which is left unsaid. In these 13 stories, six of which first appeared in The New Yorker, Robison leaves out all the right things.

Robison deals, for the most part, with people whose forms of distress are habitual rather than critical. They are not looking for sympathy--which may be why they are sympathetic characters. And if the stakes aren't always high, there is still the assured quality of the narrative, fresh and winning dialogue, and unexpected endings that amplify all that came before.

And there is a wonderful desolate humor at times. In "The Line," a man attempts to confide in a friend about an extramarital foray and is dismissed thus: "Maybe check that out with your clergyman?" In "Envy," a man estimates that another's new topcoat must have cost "as much as a minor-league ball franchise."

The child of two architects in "Set Off" lives in a "jointly wrought 'concept' " and observes that, "in fact, about everything we use at home is a designed object, and that is very tiring--whatever breaks, you feel rotten."

"Home" was chosen by Stanley Elkin as one of the Best American Short Stories of 1980. Here, the decorous prose serves the formal feel of the story itself. "Home" concerns the middle-age foster parents (the father a retired priest) of a teen-age girl. It looks to be that thing known as The New Yorker Casual--a story in which there is no real clashing of values, no social disruption, just open-ended observations that imply a larger meaning. Then, in the last five lines, Robison bumps it up into another place entirely.

"Envy" features a man who is "dazzled . . . by how complicated things really are." He plays scenarios in his head that star himself, his ex-wife and their daughter in reunions and happy-family fantasy.

"Do not whisper this about, but, for example, I do not understand my job," he says to his ex, in his mind. "I'm not sure what we do at Hastings Valve . . . I've sussed out that they have a scheme for me--I know you did, as well. Yours was a big mystery to me and so is theirs. For both of you, woman and valve company, the scenario for me had in it the words, 'early retirement'."

What could easily travel into sentimentality is instead made moving by Robison's strategic simplicity: The man imagines that he informs his ex-wife that he has given up red meat and now cooks vegetables in a wok. "This is how I live. I'm better than I was," he imagines he tells her.

Occasionally, a story won't add up to much. "The Ecstasy of the Animals" is one such story. But more often we are given a grown-up story like "Transfer," wherein a young couple consider a move to Los Angeles, a move that would tear the man away from his parents, and the woman away from her lover at the office. To stay where they are means having to confront the wife's affair. Will there be a fight? she wants to know. "Oh, sure. Hell, yes," says her husband. "We stay, we tie into it. . . ."

The young woman who takes care of someone else's beach house in "The House Sitter" comes to know herself a bit better after a strange, intrusive neighbor forces her company on her. When the woman insists on an impromptu hootenanny, the house sitter protests: "I just don't like to be sung to. I never know where to look."

Shock of recognition, anyone?

The house sitter then plans to make a list: " 'I hate singing,' would be No. 1. From there she meant to go on, listing point by point to herself not who she was, exactly, but who she was not."

Throughout Robison's stories, a love of language is evident--a wind over water creates "rooster tails of spray," a diner in a greasy spoon notes "the little aquariums of fruit drink" on the counter. This, and his portrayal of pivotal moments in a range of lives, make "Rumor and Other Stories" a startling, serious collection.

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