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The Progress of Love by Alice Munro (Knopf: $16.95; 308 pp.)

August 31, 1986|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Alice Munro sits in Clinton, Ontario, Canada, population fewer than 4,000, between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, between affluent Toronto and depressed Detroit, U.S.A., writing short stories that meander from country to city and back, translating what's left of rural North America. Her fiction is of unimportant people with important decisions to make. And through these characters, Munro builds a strong sense of person in setting, scrubbing away any false romance, especially for those of us who celebrate country because it's a nice place to visit, and we don't have to live there.

"Winter comes down hard on the country," she explains in the story called "Fits," "settles down just the way the two-mile-high ice did thousands of years ago. People live within the winter in a way outsiders do not understand. They are watchful, provident, fatigued, exhilarated."

Munro insiders do understand that winter won't much change but people sometimes will, how the old exodus from farm to big city has turned into a two-way flow since disaffected urban residents discovered the lure of pastoral life when hippies were in flower. The narrator of the title story resents the intrusion: "I had the feeling that I'd rather see the farm suffer outright neglect--I'd sooner see it in the hands of hoodlums and scroungers--than see that rainbow on the barn, and some letters that looked Egyptian on the side of the house."

Young intruders make Sophie's life miserable in "White Dump"--swiping and tearing her robe while she swims in the lake, dropping a cigarette between rocks rather than stubbing it out, throwing her belongings into the water. Sophie, trying to compose herself, remembers "a safe old tub of a rowboat that used to be tied up here when she was a child."

Dan, in "Circle of Prayer," builds himself a country life because he can do things country people need and respect--garden, fix cars, chop wood; he became a local businessman who belonged to the local business booster club, "All without shaving off his 1960s beard or trimming his hair any more than he wanted to. The town was too small, and Dan was too smart for that to be necessary."

There are many such mutual accommodations in Munro stories and many reminders that country people now know a larger world, thanks to jet flight or international trade or mass media. Several of these stories imply that country people know more about urban life than city people know about the real country. The flow of ideas, unlike human migration, is still usually one-way. The mass media gather their forces and finances in the city; the products are manufactured in the city by people who work in the city with the surrounding nearsightedness of the city. The flow is then outward, from city to hamlet. Almost never is this river reversed.

Halfway through "A Queer Streak," a revelation of two girls who send death threats to their father, the reader remembers how Sherwood Anderson's short stories in "Winesburg, Ohio," shocked the prigs of nearly 70 years ago, telling them about the sins--violent and venal--behind the white-shingle framework of small-town America. There are no facades left in the 1980s, and Munro never pretends that her Canadians are any purer of heart or spirit than big-city people.

What she does instead, does with a grasp of craft and a profound sense of human contradiction, is travel around inside the skins of people who react to real problems in not-so expectable ways: Peg discovers her neighbors' murder-suicide, reports the facts but protects everybody from the horrific details rather than seem to bask in attention-by-association. Mary Jo listens while Rhea describes Rhea's own father as having "the mind of a dinosaur," listens politely without admitting that this same man is the person Mary Jo quite loves. Violet comes to decide that what she must do is, "To give in. To give up. Care for them. Live for others." This renunciation becomes, in fact, a "golden opportunity" rather than a religious self-mortification or simply an old-fashioned resignation.

Women make most of the unselfish sacrifices in these stories. But the men aren't so bad, either. Few writers of fiction dare dwell on goodness. Munro dwells so persuasively and convincingly that her small population, between bigger issues, bigger forces, is always credible and often even admirable. Goodness, like badness, goes naturally with the territory.

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