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Drunk With Love by Ellen Gilchrist (Little, Brown: $15.95; 239 pp.)

September 14, 1986| Meg Wolitzer | Wolitzer's most recent novel is "Hidden Pictures" (Houghton Mifflin). and

"Drunk With Love," Ellen Gilchrist's new collection of short stories, is filled with strong, occasionally dazzling pieces of fiction, yet somehow the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. This is an odd phenomenon, and while it doesn't take away from the pleasure to be had while reading the book, it does leave the reader feeling slightly dissatisfied upon finishing it.

What's missing here is a thread of commonality running through all the stories. Instead, we have a variety of quirky characters leading all sorts of dissimilar lives. It's as though Gilchrist is showing us her range of knowledge, which is considerable, rather than stopping and dwelling on the elements in her prose that are most successful and moving. It almost seems as though the author isn't sure of where she's strongest, so she's giving us everything she knows.

The reader, for one, has definite opinions as to where Gilchrist's writing really takes off. The title story is an uneven tale of a few people living in Berkeley, and while it rambles on in what seems an aimless manner, it surprises us with a terrific, surrealistic ending. Nora Jane, who has recently learned she is pregnant with twins, fades from the story at its closing moments to give the spotlight to the twin fetuses themselves, who suddenly come to life and begin to speak:

Down inside Nora Jane's womb Tammili signaled to her sister. "Nice night tonight."

"I wish it could always be the same. She's always changing. Up and down. Up and down."

"Get used to it. We'll be there soon."

"Let's don't think about it."

"You're right. Let's be quiet."

"Okay."

Gilchrist presents the twins as aliens about to land on Earth, and this sense of her characters as outsiders is a theme that occurs a couple of times in the collection, to great success. She is especially sensitive to the alienation that children and adolescents feel, and to the tenuous hold they often have over their own lives. In this volume, Gilchrist resuscitates several of the characters from her much-praised earlier collection, "Victory Over Japan," and among them, we find Rhoda, a precocious young girl growing up in the 1940s, entering into a life she does not fully understand, nor can she fully control. Gilchrist gives us a well-rendered account of the feelings Rhoda has upon her family's imminent move. Surprisingly, Rhoda and her mother become collaborators during the melancholy drive to their new home in the story "The Expansion of the Universe":

Rhoda sat up in the seat. It was the Ohio River, dark and vast below her, and the sky was dark and vast above with only a few stars and they were really leaving.

"I don't believe it," she said. "I don't believe he'd do this to me." Then she began to weep . . . and her mother wept with her but she kept her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road. "There was nothing I could do about it, darling," she said. "I told him over and over but he wouldn't listen. . . ."

The next story in the collection, "Adoration," takes a leap ahead in years, and we learn that Rhoda is now married and putting her husband through school. It is a tribute to Gilchrist that the reader feels a pang at the gap of time that has passed, and all the facts we don't know about Rhoda during the intervening years. Did her boyfriend die? Did she bear the move to her new home? Actually, we can infer the answers to these questions, and Gilchrist is a subtle enough writer to suggest a good deal about Rhoda without coming out and giving it all away. The author is best, in fact, during those small, oblique moments, which are present in several of these stories, and are curiously absent from others.

"The Emancipator," for instance, is a disappointing tale that almost feels allegorical, about the marriage between a young woman with a social conscience and a sexy Lebanese man whose visa is about to expire. The relationship leads quickly to an obvious end in tragedy, and the reader can see it coming a long way off and does not feel satisfied.

Gilchrist is heavy-handed in this story, as she also is in "Belize," which gives us a vacation of some bored rich people, but doesn't take us anywhere we haven't been before. Gilchrist's prose flags here as well, and the writing feels too laconic, the sentences choppy and flat: "We drop the bags in the unacceptable room. We go out and find adventure. There's a grocery store on a corner with Dutch chocolates. Stacy giggles. Whit buys her a chocolate bar." Perhaps the flatness of the prose is being used to help us imagine the flatness of the characters' lives, but in this case, the imitative fallacy is at work, and we are simply lulled by what is going on, not enlivened.

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