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Temporary Shelter: SHORT STORIES by Mary Gordon (Random House: $16.95; 213 pp.)

July 12, 1987|Carolyn See

Repeatedly reading works of fiction seems sometimes like going out to restaurant dinners every night. You can't afford to be evil-tempered or unduly intolerant about what you're consuming because underneath every experience is the inescapable knowledge that someone else has gone to a great deal of trouble; putting together either that bowl of Greek salad or that slice of inner life that maybe you should have invented for yourself, on your own.

Thus, a certain part of a reader's sensibilities is always just a little bit deadened: If the character appears to be made of cardboard (or if your blue plate special is once again preceded by iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing), there's always a silent question somewhere inside you: Could you do any better yourself? The answer is often a shamefaced "no."

Because of this little corner of deadness, this part of the consumer that gets used--over a period of years and years--to settling for less, when you find something truly excellent, it seems, sometimes, to be a pure miracle. The other night, for instance, at a restaurant in the Palisades, a well-groomed matron went absolutely ape-crazy at her table. "Try this!" she implored her friends. "Try this! Try this! Try this!" It was only pasta, only shrimp, only tomatoes and only spinach that she flung about the table, but it was perfect, and the matron was in a heaven of enjoyment and surprise.

If "Temporary Shelter" were a restaurant, it would be small, and white, and on a side street. The air would be fresh and the linen spotless. The waiter would beam with happiness as you came in the door, and then, with seriousness and modesty, serve you up one tempting short story after another until you were done. Some of these would put you into a feeding frenzy, so that--reading aloud--you'd implore your friends, "Try this! Try this!" Others, ones that the waiter might refer to as "a little bit spicy dish," you'd taste and swallow, and--even if you didn't love them--remember for a long, long time, because of their authenticity, and the care-taking in their invention.

The stories in "Temporary Shelter" almost all involve extraordinary loneliness, and the absolutely extraordinary heroic attempts that human beings make to alleviate that condition. (In exactly the same way--not to belabor the restaurant metaphor--behind every meal, there exists an infinite hunger.) Loneliness is the human condition, but how it is addressed defines everything.

These stories come in clusters. The most elegant set is a trio of tales that belong to Nora, a second-generation Irish girl whose mother and aunts together make up a world view. America is great and good and allegedly full of opportunity, but one of Nora's legs is shorter than the other: Nothing, nothing she can do will change that. In "Delia," Nora is still a child. She sees her youngest aunt in love (and what a strange, exalted, refined, foreign emotion that appears to be, in the midst of her groping, inarticulate, brutish family). Then Delia dies in childbirth, and that's that.

In "Agnes," another story with the same characters, Nora, older now, dreams that, in spite of everything, she may find the love she so desires. But no dice. In "Eileen," we see Nora again as an adult, a loveless cripple, losing herself in office work, her life a hundred times sadder to the reader since we have already known her when she was young and vulnerable and yearning.

But these stories (and all the others) are kept from pathos because of their authenticity and craft. Nora's evil aunt Briget, for instance, finds the sore spot in everyone's soul and grinds down on it, hard: "There was truth. . . . There was always truth in Briget's black predictions and malevolent reports. It was the partial truths in what she said that made her dangerous." A character like Briget reminds us that the human nature has a canker in it somewhere; it's not just Nora's leg that keeps her from happiness but the flaws in the whole human setup; the vulnerable human soul.

It's just that pain, that loneliness, that makes the decision to love so amazing. In "Safe," a young mother with a child goes off--with her new baby--to have lunch with an old admirer. During her long day, all her regrets surface and submerge: Will she have to give up adventure, her sense of herself as an interesting, important person? If she wants to be "safe," she'll have to. Nothing good comes easy. Every trade-off is strict.

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