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The World Through a Washed Window : FAMILY ATTRACTIONS by Judith Freeman (Viking: $16.95; 210 pp.)

February 14, 1988|Merrill Joan Gerber | Gerber has published stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Sewanee Review, as well as in "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1986." Her most recent collection is "Honeymoon" (University of Illinois Press)

In her first published collection of short stories, "Family Attractions," Judith Freeman tells her tales in passionate voices strong with the authority of deeply felt experience, folk wisdom, and close observation of life.

The most important and affecting stories in the book are the final two, both about a young Mormon woman from Utah whose overwhelming responsibility in life is to care for her sick son. In "Going Out to Sea," we learn: "The baby was very sick and the doctor didn't think it had six months without an operation. . . ." In "Clearfield," we're told: "Years earlier I had gotten married, had a child, gone away, lived elsewhere, divorced, and finally come back home because I didn't know where else to go. I had no training, no money, and a 5-year-old who had been sick most of his life and who I needed some help with." The power of the stories comes from the accretion of detail, not from Freeman's prose, which is often bluntly, at times excessively, prosaic. Her ingenuousness of tone, however, protects the reader from characters who boast an easy irony or trendy cynicism.

In "The Botanic Gardens," Beatrice, a 48-year-old woman on vacation alone in Australia after her fiance has died suddenly, says: "It was terrible to be alone in a foreign city. Every day you had to think of things to do, create everything from scratch, as though you were an artist confronted with an empty canvas or a writer peering at blank paper." Beatrice's confession expresses an unfashionable truth about travel that we may have thought but kept to ourselves. Little truths like these appear, often unexpectedly, throughout the stories. Though not extraordinary when taken one at a time, they seem to build overall to an admirable wisdom.

A man Beatrice meets at a concert has a face in which "she discovered shades of James Joyce." She later discovers the man drives a McDonald's Roasted Nuts truck. "She looked out at the sea, which had a farther-reaching feeling than the ocean in California did. She thought, It's always going to be like this. There would only be a series of wrong things, primary events turned sour."

California figures in a number of these stories, notably the title story, "Family Attractions," a term that refers not only to the column of attractions listed in the newspaper but to what George feels for his new family: "He had never planned to marry, let alone marry a woman twenty-five years younger, and one with two energetic children . . . what would he have, twenty years with them? Fifteen?" When his wife proposes that they have a baby together "if we do it soon. Lots of women have kids when they're my age," George replies, "I don't know." But he does know. And his decision seems reinforced when moments later "something swooped out of the sky so quickly that for a moment George wasn't certain he'd actually seen anything. He thought some trick of the eye had fooled him. But then a second time the thing dove in front of them, and this time he saw it for what it was, a bat, moving out at dusk from some dank and darkened dwelling."

Freeman attempts to use symbols in her stories the way Flannery O'Connor used them in hers: They're meant to work on a literal level even as they produce deeper and resonanting levels of meaning. Some, like this bat, seem a bit heavy-handed, while others work quite effectively. In "Camp Rose," a not-so-young woman has just told her married lover goodby, and has come to visit with her family in her brother's mountain cabin. When she finds her mother writing out a formula for homemade window cleaner, she "imagines making a gallon of window cleaner. She knows she'd never use it. In the three years she's lived in her present apartment, she's cleaned the windows once." This detail seems unimportant until the end of the story when Ann's dream of buying an old cottage next to her brother's property is dashed. Back in Los Angeles, she thinks, "Like most ideas, it was just an idea, it wasn't ever really there." Depressed and catching cold, she "thinks of getting into bed and being really, truly sick." But instead she goes to the market and buys the ingredients for the window cleaner: "It's like alchemy. She expects something remarkable, like a genie, to rise up out of the fumes. By the time the sun sets behind a row of billboards, the panes of glass are so transparent it's very hard to believe there is anything between herself and the shapes of things out in the world."

In the best moments of these stories, we lose our awareness of reading a story and move through Freeman's fictional transparency directly into the world she wishes to reveal to us.

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