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Tales of Florence and Los Angeles : HARD TO BE GOOD by Bill Barich (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $15.95; 180 pp.)

December 06, 1987|William Murray | Murray's latest novel is "When the Fat Man Sings." He's a staff writer for The New Yorker and also teaches writing workshops at UCSD. and

Bill Barich is such a talented writer that he tends to make me sputter with frustration. This is because he writes mainly from and about life in the areas of the world, Italy and California, I care most about. He also turns out copy, most of it brilliantly entertaining, about the odd claustrophobic world of horse racing, another of my passions. I keep hoping he'll go away and turn his attention to subjects that bore me, like bowling or professional football, but evidently it is not to be. Here he is again on my turf, with a collection of pieces I wish I had written.

Three of the seven stories in this book are set in Italy and two of them, "October" and "Caravaggio," struck me as first-rate. Barich not only loves Italy--and especially Florence, where he has spent some time--but he has a keen outsider's eye for the telling details of Italian social behavior and personal relationships that illuminate his narratives. "And there was poor Aldo at our favorite cafe," he writes, "sitting at a table with two chairs tipped up against the edge, reserved for us. Under a dull, yellow light bulb, with smoke curling around his monkish face, he looked like a man who had been thinking the same thought for a million years." In two sentences, Barich tells us almost all we need to know about Aldo, at least for the purposes of this tale. And although the point of view throughout remains distinctly American, he neither makes fun of nor patronizes his foreigners, even when their antics verge on the absurd.

Barich is clearly a writer who cares deeply about his characters and the depth of this emotion is what gives his writing strength. He makes us see and hear each one of them vividly, as if we had discovered them ourselves. It's a gift that cannot be taught in any creative-writing class and that distinguishes the work of only the very best authors. His few mistakes in the Italian tales are minor--an occasional misspelling, a missed nuance of social behavior--and they in no way mar the effect.

Of the other stories here, my favorites are the title piece and "Too Much Electricity," a couple of minor epics about young men on the loose in California. Basically, what both Shane and Gordy, the protagonists, are trying to do is put the pieces of their shattered lives back together in a society with no foundation all the way down the line, as William Saroyan might have put it. "Shane got arrested just before his 16th birthday," is the way Barich opens his account of a teen-age boy being briefly reunited with his mother and an oddball stepfather he's never met. She's a fugitive from the '60s; he calls her Susan, and he does his best to make a lasting contact with her, "even though he knew that she had presented him with a complicated life by refusing to simplify her own."

Gordy is an ex-punk-rock musician who has fled the L.A. night scene for a summer of healing ranch work in Oregon. He comes back, gets into the moving business, is doing all right, then becomes fatally entangled with Valerie, another fugitive, "young, blond, and built for speed." It isn't long, of course, before the fabric of his new life begins to unravel self-destructively again, and he leaves, promising himself "that he would do better next trip, and that if he didn't do better, he would continue to repeat the trip until he got it right."

Barich's California stories, unlike his Italian ones, cover a lot of ground. In fact, more happens in them than in most contemporary novels, and it's a tribute to this writer's skill that he doesn't waste our time telling us one word more than we need to know. Occasionally, I found myself frustrated by his economy, but only because I was so caught up in the narrative that I wanted it to spread out. Perhaps in his next book he will. Publishers are notoriously unsympathetic to gambling on short-story collections and, as a betting man, I'd risk a couple of bucks, at least, on the proposition that Barich may have a novel in the works. I hope so, but I also hope he sets it in Idaho or New Jersey, somewhere I won't have to compete with him.

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