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Nine Voices . . . for Only One Reader at a Time

January 22, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Nine Women by Shirley Ann Grau (Knopf: $14.95)

Shirley Ann Grau has been around a long time without making a fuss about it. She has published eight books in 30 years, starting with "The Black Prince" and "The Hard Blue Sky." This is not a trickle, but it is certainly not a flood. All her writing life, she seems to have responded to that forgotten command: Speak mainly when you have something to say.

In most of the nine stories in this new collection, Grau has something very precise to say. What seizes you is the particular, perfectly drawn arc of her spirit. Using a classical notion of the short-story--faintly archaic, even, in its organization around a tiny but essential leap of awareness--she follows no path and beats none. There is room only for her and one reader at a time. The reader feels perilously singled out.

A few of the stories seem pallid and reluctant, though never forced. In "Home," a lesbian couple undergoes and finally surmounts the trauma caused when one of them decides to have a baby for both to bring up. "You're going to love the part that's me," the impending mother declares, "and I'm going to hate the part that isn't you."

Dealing With a Special World

The emotional transaction is beautifully worked out; what is missing is the chink of tangible coin. Grau has dealt with a special world to the extent of imagining herself out of her own--a first step--but not quite imagining herself into the other one.

On the other hand, this white Southern writer performs a remarkable feat of empathy in "Ending." Its finely detailed shifts of mood and manners portray a wedding in a wealthy black family that crystallizes the breakup of the marriage of the bride's parents.

Half of the stories are about old age and death. Like the pharaohs, Grau uses the best of her art to construct funerary chambers; not simply for entombment, but to distill the colors of life down to its last passage. Even when death is not involved, the climactic moment is usually a relinquishing of some kind.

In "Summer Shore," the closing down of a summer house snags upon a point of time a cycle of living that is both rich and shabby. The owners and their seasonal friends are lashed to ceremonies of pleasure that each year become thinner and more age-tattered. Grau picks her ridge-top way between nostalgia and irony.

In "Housekeeper," a middle-aged widow, independent and with lots of energy, resists her children's hopes that she will dwindle into some kind of respectable charity work. Instead, she signs on with a wealthy widower. Housekeeping was work she knew, she reflects; besides, she wanted to earn money. Earning money is a sign of life.

No Radio or Whistling

The widower, Dr. Hollisher, is a man of measured distances and superficial orderliness. He insists on complete quiet: no radio or whistling. On the other hand, he hates to be sneaked up on; she is not to wear rubber soles. Her feet hurt, though, so she negotiates a compromise: She will wear a jingly bracelet.

The negotiation has a gentle comedy to it, but it strikes sparks. The story goes deeper. Hollisher moves restlessly from one expensive hobby to another: amateur radio, chess, fishing, boating. One day, he disappears in his boat and presumably drowns. The widow, who has remarried, finds herself haunted by his silent and unquiet spirit.

In "Widows Walk," survival is a slow form of fatal illness. A widow goes faithfully to the beach club that her husband had helped to found. She asserts her presence each day; chatting with friends and having her regular round of drinks. Yet the routine becomes more and more ghostly. At home, she walks through her rooms and examines her possessions, one by one. But widowhood is a universal state. Her rooms are widows; so is her furniture. Even her friendships are widows. Mortality bleeds into her life.

Sole Survivor of a Plane Crash

The theme is put even more strongly in "Hunter." Nancy Martinson is the sole survivor of a plane crash that kills all of the other passengers, including her husband and daughter. Grau's description is unearthly:

"A yellow column of flame appeared in the aisle. Glittering, shining. The color of sun, burning like sun.

"She saw her daughter--recognized the blue-and-white stripes of her dress--saw her daughter, arms outstretched, rise to meet it. Pass through the gleaming gateway and vanish."

She sees her husband rise also, reach for her, vanish. And once recovered, she is convinced that she died as well, but through some flaw in time failed to make it. So she flies continually, crisscrossing the country, waiting for the flaw to be mended.

Grau tells much of the story through a young TV reporter who interviews the survivor. He stands on our side; we see through his eyes. And through his eyes, we are drawn helplessly into the wanderings of Nancy Martinson's million-passenger-mile ghost. Our lives are attachments, not biology; we do not survive them.

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