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Richard Eder

Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips (Seymour Lawrence / Dutton: $15.95; 144 pp.)

April 19, 1987|Richard Eder

Even though her ear for numb and displaced American voices is as sharp as that of any of her fellow writers, Jayne Anne Phillips does not, like the cooler practitioners, turn her stories entirely over to them.

She has a middle distance. She doesn't rule her characters, as in older styles of short-story writing. But she doesn't leave them by themselves, either.

The reader senses a listener as well as a voice. It is a listener who seeks the voice out; one who is interested in the characters, feelings, fates and souls of a wide variety of lives operating at all manner of temperatures. The listener is silent, maybe only implicit; but, as Strindberg and Beckett have shown, a speech to a silent listener is the opposite of a monologue.

The first of the seven stories in "Fast Lanes" is an example. Mickey talks, compulsively, nakedly. Mickey is a struggling waif, a sporadically working rock musician who lives off the gritty pavement among other waifs; who falls, picks himself up, and goes on.

He talks one night to a woman he is with. He tells of his time in and out of a foster home and a state asylum. He tells of a year or two he spent in England, living with a woman and child and playing music; briefly free, in this unfamiliar world, from the perpetual burden of his street smarts, and able for a little while simply to live.

Mickey, hip and knowledgeable, could be a wilder, underprivileged version of a Jay McInerney or a Bret Easton Ellis narrator, except for one thing: Those voices address no one; they are dead ends. Mickey seeks a way out; instead of hugging his pain, he delivers it to the silent woman he is with, and in this lies all the difference.

To say "I hurt" to someone else is a beginning of self-compassion and, after that, a beginning of compassion. Hipness becomes a form of humanity instead of a substitute for it. We are moved, morally as well as emotionally, when Mickey laments a spaced-out girl he used to live with. When she burst dementedly into his room and tried to kill him, the police put a straightjacket on her.

"Have you ever seen someone you know in one?" Mickey asks. "She looked amputated, lopped off and exploding, her arms gone when I'd felt them holding me all that time before."

In the title story, a young woman whose life has speeded up to the point of going out of control returns from the West to see her mother in West Virginia. She is brittle and burnt out; drugs, sex and a drifting communal life have lost the magic they once had, but they are all she knows.

The story, beautifully devised to fit image to emotion, is about her journey home. It is a gradual, painful slowing-down. She gets a ride from Thurman, a carpenter, musician and former Peace Corpsman, who owns a pickup truck. Sharing the driving, she has to learn for the first time how to use gears and regulate speeds. Life, Thurman begins to teach her, is something more complex than jamming the accelerator to the floor and staying in the fast lane.

There is no patness or condescension in the teaching or the story. It is told in hints, flashes and symptoms, on the level of the narrator's own throbbing chaos. She turns to Thurman, but he is no more than half a step ahead of her. They quarrel, pull apart, and come together as she approaches home, dreading it. Staying in the fast lane may be lethal; shifting off it can be almost as perilous.

"I'll tell you this about fast lanes," Thurman says the night before he drops her off. "Don't close your eyes. Keep watching every minute. Watch in your sleep. If you're careful you can make it: the fast shift, the one right move. Sooner or later you'll see your chance."

The story is the closing of the cycle that began over three decades ago with Kerouac's "On the Road." It is the return trip, and Phillips gives it a full measure of pain, laced with tenderness.

The author's sympathy, her ability to imagine herself into the feelings of very different kinds of people, in no way lessens a precision that we are more used to finding at cooler temperatures.

In "Rayme," the story of another drifting waif, who finally drifts off into madness, she writes:

"Rayme was like a telephone to another world. Her messages were syllables from an investigative dream, and her every movement was precise, like those of a driver unerringly steering an automobile by watching the road through the rear view mirror."

In "Blue Moon," a mother forbids her son to go out for football because she had a boyfriend who died of a heart attack playing it. The boy's father, though disagreeing, remains silent. In one phrase, Phillips captures the distance and the unhealed scars in a marriage.

"He allowed her this undisputed commandment as though he refused to validate her long-ago loss by arguing about it."

The stories in "Fast Lanes" frequently hover on the edge of poetry. One or two--"Blue Moon" and "Bess"--are more heavily plotted than the others and seem to me less successful. Phillips gets all the movement she needs from her characters in the resilient struggling of their hearts against the eroding evidence of their senses.

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