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FICTION : THE FIRST THING COMING by Keith Abbott (Coffee House Press: $9.95, paper; 216 pp.).

December 20, 1987|Janice Mall

In this book of short stories, Keith Abbott has produced something closer to a novel. All of the stories are about the same group of people, and they are chronological, following the characters for 10 years, beginning when they are high school seniors in the early 1960s in a small town in Washington state. Classifying this as stories relieves the author of the task of structuring a novel.

And relieves him in some cases of writing genuine short stories. Several do not stand alone, the later stories benefiting by previous acquaintance with the characters.

The title expresses the feeling of life at that time in America's back forty. It comes from a poem by Jack Spicer: "We are a coast people / There is Nothing but ocean out beyond us. We grasp the first thing coming."

Eighteen-year-olds, also, tend to grasp the first thing coming whether it is marriage or college or the Army. One very effective and moving recurring theme in the stories concerns the boys who weren't college material, who went into the military after high school. In that place and at that time, they leave for Vietnam without their hometown people knowing what is going on there, and return from it to people who have no idea what they have been through.

Too much of the atmosphere of these stories comes from tiresome details like the names of brands of beer and titles of songs and labels on shirts and the years and makes of cars, but Abbott's dialogue is fresh and real, and some of his glimpses into lives are riveting. "Creme de La Creme," a very short piece about a shocking prank by a small-town boy turned big-time college football player, towers over some of the longer stories.

Abbott also writes with marvelous feeling about girls and women. In a gentle story, "Mary Lou and the Perfect Husband," a 17-year-old pregnant girl is captured, full of all her longings; she turns up in a later story, after 10 years have passed, as a battered wife. Abbott's strongest character, the one who sets out to lead an examined life and not take "the first thing coming" is Franci, a high school senior, who in "Spanish Castle," a story with suspense and surprises, overcomes a daunting home life and past with a mature and brave act.

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