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Lovers & Cohorts by Herbert Gold (Donald I. Fine: $17.95; 331 pp.)

May 04, 1986| Bette Pesetsky | Pesetsky's most recent novel is "Digs" (Knopf). and

"Marriage can be fun, the conservative marriage counselor said. He was perhaps the last marriage counselor in California who counseled marriage." And he was wrong--at least for the couple in the life-in-miniature in Herbert Gold's story "Stages." Indeed, marriage gets short shrift in many of the stories in Gold's new collection.

Gold has scooped up 27 stories written over a 40-year span for "Cohorts & Lovers." Some are new, others collected in three earlier volumes--"Love & Like, the Magic Will" and "A Walk on the West Side." In his introduction to the collection, Gold willingly tells us what he writes about. "Love," says the author, "family, Jews, Bohemia, wanderlust, and the meaning of life."

The narrator for 11 of these stories is the masculine "I"--which I shall differentiate into the Cleveland "I" and the other "I's." The Cleveland "I" seems to me to be by tone and exhausted passions the same person who revisits his life from story to story.

Take the traveling "I" in "Love and Like" who returns to the scene of domestic disaster to ruminate over the leavings of marriage, the undigested quarrels, the deserted lovers, the dreams of lost children. "If they had finally made out, it would all have been remembered as the progress and process of love: With failure, it could seem all bad; he was determined to hold in retrospect to a mixed verdict--some pretty, some unpretty, and nevertheless the long Sunday afternoon habit of lovemaking spoke for true intimacy." Alas, the search for true intimacy leads us right to the unfaithful husbands (professors) whose unsurprising lovers (students) inhabit "Paris and Cleveland Are Voyages" and "What Became of Your Creature?"

The best of Gold's stories have the flow of the natural storyteller, the rhythmic dialogue and the voice that sustains. In the "Smallest Part"--the story that the author says served to generate his novel "He/She"--the domestic drama stirs. The tale is neither slick nor excessively crafted. In the few pages of "The Ninety-Six-Year-Old Big Sister," we are affected by the death of the old woman of the title who leaves her 81-year-old sister bereft of the talisman of a living older sister.

The stories set in Haiti offer a provocative sense of locale. "Port au Prince has become an amputated town. . . ." In "Timoune," a Haitian woman takes for granted that the American family who have befriended her daughter will take the child back to the States with them as daughter cum servant. In the "Haitian Gentleman," we are given images of a particular man living through a particular life. "Andre-Pierre was bored by vodun as a Southern planter might be bored by hillbilly music. The loas of vodun and the bakas and the loupsgarous and the zombies--the beasts of the Haitian hills--he had put away years ago, along with his childhood. . . . 'I have a degree from Paris, do you think I need to spend time on Chicken-worship?' " I can see Gold's Haiti better than I can see his Cleveland.

And sometimes when things are going well and Gold has hooked us, he forgets his lucid style, his colloquial wit, and we speed along into rhetoric. He can offer up the slick devices of "Susanna on the Beach," where the girl with the torn bathing suit receives the expected reactions from the spectators on the beach.

A prolific author--40 years of stories. What's the problem? Well, the problem is that this has become rather a Golden Age of the short story. Have Gold's stories traveled well? Or should they have been packed as if by Scheherezade with description, discourse, quips, reminiscences, proverbs and the rest? There is no doubt that Herbert Gold lived for too long a time with the fearsome appellation "promising." Is it that by expecting much we are reluctant to settle for less? No, I think not. A story ought to linger--rattle around in our mind. We are given technical proficiency when we want to be haunted. Gold offers us the familiar assumptions about life's experiences, and we need more than the touch of recognition for the Jewish experience, the domestic disruption, the suburban malaise. We want to be pushed to an imaginative limit past the numbed hearts of Gold's men, to the point of passion where craftsmanship alone will not suffice.

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