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The Flood of '64: STORIES by David Long (Ecco: $16.95; 221 pp.)

April 19, 1987|Rena S. Kleiman | Kleiman is a free-lance writer and critic

The title of David Long's second collection of short stories reflects the everyday way the author approaches the extraordinary events that creep up, grab our lives and spin them around. It's not that floods, blizzards, plane crashes aren't Big Deals, Long seems to say, it's just that they're inescapable--part of the scheme of things. They happen, and life goes on.

The 10 tales in this volume--like those of his first collection, "Home Fires"--all take place around Sperry Canyon, Mont., giving a strong sense of the West's frontier mentality--of what could be when there are open spaces left to explore. These are places where you can still go down the road to start a new life--invent a new past, allow a new future, as the prison escapee does in "Cooper Loftus" and the unhappy mother does in the title story.

At the same time, "The Flood of '64" also describes Long's nostalgic look back at Big Events the way we might sit around chatting about where we were during the Blackout, or when Kennedy was shot.

His informal voice is that of the campfire storyteller--the spinner of yarns about people we used to know and how their lives turned out. In "Compensation," he seems to be saying: You remember Patsy? The waitress? Well, she went back to Mitch after her Mama died and after he turned up at the diner with a million-dollar settlement his city lawyers got him for his injuries on the railroad. (Course we don't know it's millions, but he was flashing a check with a whole lot of zeroes on it.)

These are real people doing real, everyday things. They are us. When Carl Prudhomme in the title story retires as police chief and his awful secret is secure with him, he stands there red-faced, thinking to himself: "You should know things about me, I wanted to say. You should know about deceit. . . . Instead I thanked him for the plaque and withstood their flurry of applause."

And whatever their flaws, the characters are all likable. We don't fault the mother who invents a new past, or the wife who betrays her husband in the title story. And if we can't like them--can't like the angry youth in "Alex's Fire"--we can at least understand them.

They all have some sense of righteousness about them: the man out looking for his wife in the freezing cold; the young woman who escapes her mother's stifling clutches; the union leader hanged at the edge of town by local rednecks; the man who goes to jail on a fluke, escapes on another fluke and then is hounded by his guilt.

The women characters seem particularly caught in loves not of their choosing, like Lillian Wallace in the novella "The Oriental Limited," who barely manages to escape her migraines and the life her mother has laid out for her to wear. Others are trapped in bad marriages, like Carla Prudhomme wedded to Teller Stoltz, a man she despises.

"Teller's mother cornered me in the bathroom, all schnapps and My Sin. She wanted a promise out of me that I'd be a decent mother, and I said, 'We'll see, won't we?' I hadn't thought up the idea of telling Teller I had an infection and couldn't have any, that was later."

In some ways, they are all about fate, a sad, resigned quality. In the tender tale "Great Blue," a young boy spends his last summer on the lake with his grandfather who, he has learned, is dying of cancer. "What're you all afraid of?" says his Uncle Duff. "What's going to happen is going to happen." But when the grandfather says, "Hardly seems fair, does it?" we can hear Long saying the same thing about the victims everywhere: of cancer, of jail, of mob justice, of floods--of whatever is big, inescapable, and out to get you.

It is this that's passed on from generation to generation. A man camping alone in the mountains witnesses a small plane crash, thinks back on the family legend of his grandfather surviving a great blizzard. "My mother was the one who dredged (the story) up now and then, a preachment on doing what was needed, but my father . . . never acted like it had a point--or if it did, it was that events were sometimes larger than you were."

Long is at home in this big country, where events are larger than life, and we feel that comfort in his writing voice. There are no light bulbs going off, no epiphanies--but he has such a strong sense of these people and this place that you want to sit back and say "OK. Put another log on--it's a long night." And let him weave his storyteller's yarns about you.

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