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Smart Clues, Dumb Puzzle : A WEEK IN SOUTH DAKOTA and THE SECOND BRIDGE by Gary Gildner (Algonquin Books: $14.95; 180 pp. and $15.95; 188 pp.)

December 27, 1987|W. D. Wetherell | Wetherell's collection of short fiction, "The Man Who Loved Levittown," appeared in paperback this summer. He is also the author of a novel, "Souvenirs," and a collection of essays, "Vermont River." and

There's that passage in Hawthorne where a novelist, complaining about the publishing industry circa 1850, cries "The paltry rogues! Will they live by literature and yet risk nothing for its sake!"

Poor Nathaniel must be spinning in his grave at the state of things today, what with the major trade houses mimicking the television industry in their slicker and slicker packaging of an ever more anemic, read-alike package. Quality fiction is fast becoming the exclusive preserve of the smaller, independent houses that are springing up across the country in encouraging profusion. Of these, one of the most adventurous and interesting is Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Even on an off day, Algonquin is a cut above the New York houses, and they're not afraid to gamble on a writer they feel has something to say. It's Gary Gildner this time, out with simultaneous publication of his story collection, "A Week in South Dakota," and his first novel, "The Second Bridge."

At his best, Gildner (who has seven volumes of poetry to his credit) writes a sparkling, happy prose that manages to capture the delight of the fleeting moment. Take this passage from "The Second Bridge" where a family dances together from happiness on Christmas Eve.

"Bill and Jenny danced in a circle around Jay, going round and round, their elbows rising and falling in foolish exaggeration to the waltz's rhythm, and then as Johann Strauss the Younger brought 'Delirien' to a big finish, sending a thousand dancers into their final swirls, Bill and his daughter, their arms making a lasso, captured Jay, who closed her eyes in their embrace."

Gildner also has a talent for the zany non sequitur. "Miss Hertz tells me the reason why the government won't help me tie my tubes is we don't live in one place long enough," a character in one of the stories says. Another character is described like this: "She has unusual feet but the prettiest penmanship of anyone I know."

There are wonderful moments in this fiction, people with odd occupations and destinies (a woman who runs a rainbow trout farm; a grandfather who, sulking, perches in a tree), but, unfortunately, they don't add up. What we have is the reverse of poetry--the trendy, plotless kind of anecdote that smacks of the academy. But judge for yourself. Here is both the beginning and end of the one-page story, "The D. H. Lawrence Fan Club."

"The D. H. Lawrence Fan Club arrived at the Lawrence ranch in Taos on Memorial Day and commenced to plant Union Jacks around the Shrine. . . . At length, Mr. Tyc moved that they go ahead and eat the lunches they had brought, rather than wait for everyone to assemble; Miss Dietrick seconded the motion; there was no discussion and the motion easily passed."

If anything, the unquoted middle is even more prosaic; it's an exercise that depends for whatever effect it has solely upon the stolen magic inherent in Lawrence's name. Gildner's prose, for all its cleverness, plays it very safe; there is no emotion invested, no thought, nothing on the page except witty clues to a puzzle that hardly seems worth solving.

Ironically, the best story in "A Week in South Dakota" is "Burial"--a short, powerful tale that skillfully rides a surge of grief. The irony is that Gildner has chosen to expand that surge into a disappointing, heavily padded novel, "The Second Bridge."

On the frame of the story--a Midwestern couple fleeing the pain of their daughter's accidental death in a fire--he's added the obligatory dollop of marital infidelity, nostalgic flashbacks to a simpler day and some philosophic musings on, of all places, the Isle of Skye. In doing so, he uses tense shifts, switch of narrative person, four-line breaks and all the other current creative-writing course staples. "Does all this sound like prime-fed cliche?" the narrator asks once of the desert stars. Yes, indeed.

Actually, there's a certain logic in the experiments, since Bill, the wimpy narrator, is a poet and writing teacher. But this is exactly where the heart of "The Second Bridge's" problem lies. If we are to take the narrator seriously as a writer, then what is he doing playing around with point-of-view shifts, tense changes etc. when his daughter lies dead and his wife nearly insane from sorrow? It's not to explain her death, since the death never is explained, never faced or dealt with, even on the simple level of what caused the fire that killed her. Her death seems gratuitous, included for a quick fix of pain. In the end, Gildner flees from confronting the implications of tragic, premature death as cravenly as his narrator, taking refuge instead in spoiled, self-indulgent railings against fate.

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