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Book Review : Short Stories That Go the Distance--and That Don't

December 15, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story by Steve Barthelme (Johns Hopkins University Press; $14.95; 184 pages)

The Kennedys run for office, the Flying Wallendas become trapeze artists, and the Barthelme brothers write--their careers apparently genetically determined. Though Steve Barthelme has won the PEN fiction competition on three occasions and his short stories have frequently appeared in small literary reviews, this is his hardcover debut.

There are 17 stories here, most of which are recounted in the first person, though the "I" is by no means the same man throughout. A world of social and cultural difference separates the semi-literate narrator in "The Friend" from the confused but articulate types who guide us through the tangled personal relationships exposed in the other tales.

"The Friend" is told from the viewpoint of a habitual rapist, while the other protagonists seem fundamentally decent people trying to make sense of a disorderly world. Even the phony psychologist in "Samaritan" operates with a kind of wacky logic. Day in, day out, the fake psychologist listens to his patient, Mr. R., nattering on about his wife, his child, his parents and his dog, enduring the boredom with the help of various controlled substances taken at random.

When Mr. R. shows no signs of improvement and the drugs no longer induce oblivion in the listener, the self-styled psychologist permanently solves Mr. R's tiresome problems with a single effective gesture. By all rights, you should hate the narrator, but Barthelme is so skillful at conveying the tedium of analysis that you wind up sympathizing with the fellow despite the fact that his form of therapy is a capital crime.

One of the more strongly structured stories, "Beach," places a pair of uneasy novice adulterers in a waterfront motel off-season. The woman is all bravura; the man is a nervous wreck.

When Melissa persuades her exhausted lover to join her in a nude swim, the romantic mood is shattered by the sight of two menacing figures on the shore. Terrified and vulnerable, certain that they're being threatened by hoodlums, he asserts himself by drowning the dog the spectators have brought with them. Though "Beach" is one of the few third-person tales, the distance between narrator and protagonist is so narrow that the reader slips into the experience and feels a chill of identification.

In "That's No Reason," Barthelme's all-purpose 30-ish protagonist picks up a teen-age hitchhiker in Louisiana and drives north with her. He carries a lot of emotional baggage. The girl has no worries at all. If making love to a strange 37-year-old man will shorten the trip and save money, she's all for it. The protagonist finds her company wonderfully restorative.

He fantasizes about marrying her, moving to the suburbs and living happily ever after in mindless bliss. In fewer than 10 pages, this story manages to confront and face down several novel-sized contemporary issues.

Barthelme is at his best when he's dealing with people at the new awkward age; a bit too old to be carefree; still too immature to accept the burdens thrust upon them.

Give him a marriage going stale, the tentative beginning or sour ending of an affair, a dead-end job, and Barthelme is in his element. When he presents chance encounters and unrelated incidents as stories, the effect is like examining a writer's private notebooks.

Something equally fine could probably be made of these fragile apercus , but the author hasn't quite gotten around to developing their potential.

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