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Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown (Dutton/Seymour Lawrence: $15.95; 162 pp.)

July 20, 1986|RICHARD EDER

Mary Ward Brown's stories are about old Southerners; not really beached and not quite derelict, but with little room for maneuver in the low water that remains after the tide has mostly run out.

Widows, widowers and old couples inhabit her Deep South small towns and farms, holding to what they've achieved and seeing it lose color under the sun of a new time. The new time is barely glimpsed; the few young people in the stories are seen from the outside, portents of change.

With its skill and its attentiveness to word and gesture, Brown's style is a kind of evaporation. Her characters are precipitated from her narration like rock salts. They do not reveal themselves; they are revealed, clutching tatters of pride, passion, disappointment and fortitude. Often this gives the effect of contrivance. But at best, it provides a hinge of history for them to turn upon.

In "Goodbye, Cliff," an old widow ponders the choice of a headstone for the grave of her husband. He was brutal, shiftless and severe, and she contemplates uneasily the prospect of meeting him in the hereafter. A neighbor comes to her with tales of just how villainous and unfaithful the dead man really was; instead of being shocked, the widow is relieved. No chance now of a posthumous meeting.

It is a gimmick, though well told. So is a story about the mixed feelings another widow has when a stray black dog attaches itself to her household. He is a nuisance but, like herself, a survivor. "I was aware of a growing, grudging admiration for the black dog. Hurt and in a hostile world, indifferent at best, he managed to survive without help from anyone."

The story tends to hang from such from fairly well-trodden lines in the weaker of Brown's tales. You don't get a sense of the characters originating their predicaments and feelings, but rather of the predicaments and feelings originating the characters.

In "Disturber of the Peace," a young woman, humiliated when her fiance leaves her for someone else, is kept awake at night by an illuminated cross on the church tower across from her bedroom. After several futile efforts to get the lights turned off--humiliatingly, she even turns to her former fiance, thinking he may have influence with the minister--she stops fighting. Again, the narrative seems constructed to crash-land onto the last line: "Like an animal picked out of darkness by the hunter's light, she stared into the heart of it, mesmerized and blind."

Elsewhere, though, Brown's energy and imagination are able to design a much richer fabric around the themes she is expounding. "Tongues of Flame" is about a farm woman's weakness for a derelict but fine-grained neighbor who has become a hopeless alcoholic. He is a ruin, but with a touch of gentility that is precious to her. She and her husband get him to a three-day revival meeting at their church; at the end, he lapses, gets drunk and manages to set the church on fire. To the wife, the flames are destruction; they are also a hopeless allure that undermines the everyday drudgeries and decencies she is caught in.

In "The Amaryllis," a widower, finding that a potted plant in his house has burst into spectacular blossom, decides both to celebrate and to mourn his wife by giving a party for it. During their long marriage, it was the wife who did the adorning and the appreciating; now, he invites his friends and acquaintances to eat, drink and praise the flower. It is a marvelous story: gay, sad and unexpected.

Brown returns frequently to the passing of generations, and to the special refraction that this passage gives, in the South, to relations between the races.

"Fruit of the Season" tells it fairly crudely. A black woman, who cooks for a neighboring white-owned farm, sends her three children to pick berries and take them to the farmer's wife as a gift. It is a feudal gesture; but the children are beyond it. They think of their mother working late nights in the kitchen, and they spit on the berries before presenting them.

For her part, the white woman thinks of civil rights marchers and the threat to her way of life. She cuts short her impulse to invite the children in for lemonade and to give them presents in exchange for theirs. Instead, she pays them a dollar and politely dismisses them.

A far more complex and touching account of Southern change comes in the best story of the collection, "Beyond New Forks." Here, a white widow, whose house is decaying for lack of help, enlists her old, semiretired black cook to persuade a granddaughter to come work for her.

The two septuagenarians drive out to the granddaughter's cabin, but the mission is hopeless. The granddaughter works in a bar; she has no intention of providing decorous service to fading white gentility.

The story, with its dry message, is told with great tenderness. The two old women are united by their past and helpless before a present that has put an end to the relationships they knew. Their ride home together in the dark is a delicate weaving of old understanding and new distances.

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