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Paperback Originals

First Fiction Showcase

March 08, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Fiction/86 ($7.95, The Paycock Press, P.O. Box 30906, Bethesda, Md. 20814), edited by Richard Peabody and Gretchen Johnsen, is the third biennial anthology of short fiction in book form from Gargoyle Magazine of Washington, D.C. Like its venerable counterpart, "The Pushcart Prize" series, "Fiction/86" offers the reader a glimpse of the cutting edge of the underground press in single well-edited and well-presented volume. Otherwise, you would have to track down the work of the two dozen or so contributors to "Fiction/86" in "Amputated Fingers," "Oink!," "Tendril" and other nooks and crannies of small press publishing. And a number of intriguing and accomplished writers can be found nowhere else.

"Fiction/86" is consistently readable and accessible, opening up little windows on the lives and loves of ostensibly unremarkable people: A young girl on her Confirmation day ("Confirmation" by Barrett Warner: "Your father gets serious. Once again, he's missed a part of reality and he's gonna find who to blame"), a couple of office employees caught up in an intimate conspiracy that transcends a mere love affair ("Watching for Nessie" by Elizabeth Moore), two girlhood friends who share the anxious epiphanies of growing up ("Jamie" by Kathleen Maher).

The point of the prose in "Fiction/86," as it should be in all works of fiction, is to turn the ordinary tools of narrative writing to the task of revelation. The writers who have contributed to "Fiction/86" are rather like the gallery-goers depicted by Mary McConnell Truitt in her story, "Gravity." "St. Clair had written a question on one wall in large black letters," she writes. "Trays of paints and brushes . . . sat on the floor for people to write their answers on the wall. The question was: If air, fire, earth, water and ether are the five elements, what is the sixth? People had already started writing answers in pink and green and red: stone, heroin, butter, algae, love, bones, gold, glass, sex, blood, soap . . . ."

"First Fictions: Introduction 9" (Faber & Faber: $9.95) is the most recent title in a series that has long showcased new fiction and poetry; among the writers who were first published in the "Introduction" series are Ted Hughes, Tom Stoppard, Kazuo Ishiguro and Anne Devlin. The six authors whose short fiction is collected here are mostly under 40, and they mostly represent various current and former elements of the British Empire: Deirdre Madden is Irish, Douglas Glover is Canadian, Dorothy Nimmo and Jaci Stephen are English, and Deborah Moffatt is an American now living in Scotland. The result is a dominant British tone in much of the writing; when Dorothy Nimmo (in her story, "Wake and Call Me Mother") observes that "Birmingham in the distance looks like a celestial city," she is not thinking of Alabama.

Even so, I was struck by the American vernacular and the themes of American culture that insinuate themselves throughout "First Fictions." The young woman in Deborah Moffatt's "When Roger Got Married" is a small town survivor whose idea of upward mobility is a job at the Dairy Queen. And Douglas Glover's "Red" is the superbly realized story of a rough-and-tumble romance between a charming Texas boomer and an alcoholic patrician who has fallen on hard times but clings to her "air of impregnable Smithy hauteur." "Red never said he loved me; nor I him," she confesses. "At the Holiday Inn in Kansas City, we had struck a deal."

Even in Deirdre Madden's "Hidden Symptoms," a masterpiece about love and friendship in the maelstrom of sectarian violence, the thrust of American civilization reaches as far as Belfast: The Orange Order is casually likened to the Ku Klux Klan and IRA terrorists are seen to seek refuge "in America, unextradited and unrepetant," although we are reminded that "they're not all in California ate'n steaks and melons."

Only a handful of the authors who are introduced to us in "Fiction/86" and "First Fictions" will ever move outside the little magazines and small presses, and I doubt if any of their work will find its way to the best-seller list or the movies. But that's entirely beside the point; these two anthologies are not a literary version of "Star Search." The anthologies are an end in themselves, a collaboration of fine writers, discerning editors and civilized publishers.

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