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Paperback Originals

September 07, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

What W. H. Auden observed about poetry is also true of contemporary short fiction: "(I)t survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper. . . ." Four new titles--one published by a venerable and celebrated house, another by a university press, and two more by small regional presses--are works of grace and beauty and exquisite craftsmanship that have survived in the vales of literary enterprise where agents and publicists fear to tread. And each is mercifully free from the tampering of publishing executives whose commercial instincts lead them along better-traveled if less sublime highways.

Tales From the Next Village by Mary Caponegro (Lost Roads Publishers, P.O. Box 5848, Providence, R.I. 02903: $6.95) is embellished with a handsome, four-color cover, but the text is offered up in what is essentially a plain typescript with justified margins. Caponegro's "fictions"--they are not short stories in the conventional sense--are elegant depictions of lives and places, almost devoid of narrative but full of the quiet power and the vivid imagery of a fever dream. To Caponegro, the observed world is a place where the ordinary is suffused with imminence: "We sit and stare at it as if it were a secret that will any moment reveal itself," she writes in "Monday," referring to a rose that might also be a revelation.

"(Y)ou must develop the telescope within yourself, your own inner eye," Caponegro writes in the title piece, a lush tale of phantasmagorical love and transfigurative lust in an idealized Chinese village. Here, as with all of Caponegro's prose, we can never distinguish with absolute certainty between fantasy and reality, or between various versions of reality, but that is the author's intention; Caponegro ventures into a world of secret meaning and resonant metaphor. In one passage of the title story, a man goes down to the sea to "buy silk from the mermaids," who swim tantalizingly out of reach: "He is entranced by their lovely, subtle dissonances and their silver scales," she writes in a passage that both embodies and describes the qualities of her own prose. "He wades in the water to be one with them, but they won't open where he wants them; they lead him deeper, and now it's no game; he's trying to hold on for dear life."

Poet Kathleen Spivack turns her hand to prose in The Honeymoon (Graywolf, P.O. 75006, Saint Paul, Minn. 55175: $7), a collection of stories that focus on women in a variety of contemporary relationships: as lovers, as mothers, as providers and caretakers, as wives. Where Caponegro is oblique, Spivack is utterly plainspoken and straightforward; while Caponegro descends into a spectral world, Spivack is concerned with the here and now. In the title story, a woman on her honeymoon in Paris ("Hey, Kansas City!" she is hailed by a young American panhandler, as if to confirm her sheer ordinariness) stumbles into sexual revelation with an old girlfriend. In "The Guardian," a woman is suddenly confronted with her husband's likely lover, but almost inadvertently manages to insinuate herself into their relationship in a way that turns the rival into her unwitting ally--and turns her husband away from his budding romance. And in "Sleep," a divorced mother, weary and beset by "a chorus of needs and reminders," imagines that she longs for someone to replace her husband, "a large male animal of similar size and comforting bulk. Who drank beer occasionally and opened the refrigerator at intervals and got in and out of her bed." But that yearning woman, like all of Spivack's intriguing women, discovers an unsuspected truth about herself when she invites a man into her bed.

The New Native American Novel: Works in Progress, edited by Mary Dougherty Bartlett (University of New Mexico: $9.95; also available in hardcover, $22.50) showcases the work of American Indian poets, essayist, short story writers and accomplished novelists--including N. Scott Momaday, author of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "House Made of Dawn," Gerald Vizenor ("Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart"), and Paula Gunn Allen ("The Woman Who Owned the Shadows")--as well as some promising novices. Louise Erdrich, whose "Love Medicine" won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, contributes a fragment of her new novel, "The Beet Queen." Bartlett points out that Native Americans have contributed to American letters for nearly a century, and these short works demonstrate a breadth of vision and a diversity of style and form that transcends any facile categorization. Still, there is a rootedness, a sense of tradition, a memory of survival against the odds of history, that give all of these fragments a certain gritty strength and a bittersweet quality.

Kenzo: A Tokyo Story by Ross Davy (Penguin: $4.95) is a short novel about a young Japanese man--studying for the Buddhist priesthood but drawn to the frantic gay nightlife of Tokyo--and the two yearning Australian women who befriend him. It's a sharp, fast, sensual chronicle of the doomed Kenzo's sexual frenzy and spiritual ordeal--"Kenzo haywiring. His head programmed for Zen but playing video neon games. . . ."--and the ominous shadow that he casts over their own sexual and spiritual strivings. Indeed, "Kenzo" is haunted by a sense of impending catastrophe that intensifies until it resolves into an imagined cataclysm that turns Tokyo into "a city on the surface of the sun."

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