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Unspoken Emotions of an Ex-Boy : SAFETY PATROL by Michael Martone (Johns Hopkins University Press: $14.95; 128 pp.)

April 10, 1988|Michael Harris | Harris is a copy editor on the suburban desk.

Imagine a boy lying on a Midwestern lawn, looking up through the slats of a picket fence. There are spaces between the boards. Through the spaces, he can see things move. Cars and trains, which sometimes crash. The forest of adults' legs, and the spaces between them. Sometimes it's the fence that seems to move and the things behind it that stand still, recurrent as danger, symbolic as the sky.

Reading Michael Martone's short stories is like that. "Safety Patrol" is his second collection, following "Alive and Dead in Indiana." Martone writes, better than most, in the minimalist style now in fashion. Flat declarative statements, like these. His sentences don't always connect. Some are outright non sequiturs, to be explained later. There are spaces between them. In the best of his stories, the stories are what we read between the slats of the words.

Mostly, they are set in Fort Wayne, Ind., or in Indianapolis. The narrator is usually a boy, or rather an ex-boy, remembering being leg-high to his father. The father is often "director of safety" for a phone company, investigating fatal accidents and even staging his own, with fake blood and burns, to test the response time of police and paramedics.

Yet there are always gaps in human foresight, lapses in attention, incursions of the irrational. In "An Accident," the investigator struggles to understand how a truck driver could have failed to see a train bearing down on him. In "King of Safety," the boy, grown up, stands atop the Empire State Building and admires the "elaborate precautions, fences and pikes that curl in with sharpened points. . . . We hold back, holding back, each toying with the idea, each of us finding inside some argument against that jump."

In "Parting," a stutterer takes long, unnecessary car trips with the only friend who will listen to him. "I might utter a paragraph in an hour. And patient Martin could drive a Mack truck through the silences." Yet he knows that each trip may be the last. Only in writing things down, later, can he fill in the terrifying spaces.

He's like the Vietnamese refugee teacher in "Watch Out" who insists that she and her students speak English. It helps fill the void that tugs at her. At night, she roams empty downtown Fort Wayne, where residents are afraid to go. "Are they afraid of us?" she asks. "No, no, dear," a superior assures her, "they're just afraid."

Words fill the gaps, but Martone's words are a special kind. They substitute detail for emotion. Midwestern detail, homely as a picket fence, yet extraordinarily full and exact. About telephone switching rooms. Freeway pavement. The Indy 500. Gas stations. The "pubic wars" between girlie magazines. The precise grade of sand--"It was fine, powder, and felt, when he walked on it, like sandblasting sand at the foot of a building"--that the train's brakes left behind as it dragged the truck down the tracks.

Through the gaps in the words themselves, what do we see? The emotion left out, of course. Love or dread. For only dread can focus the eyes so intently on everything except the mangled body in the cab. And only love can explain such total recall of an ordinary past, can pitch the ears "when the whole city (of Indianapolis) became quiet in the late afternoon" to catch "the yawn of an engine coming from the (race) track and the tatter of a loudspeaker voice drifting after it."

It's a neat trick. Sometimes, though, it's only a trick. Plot almost disappears, and the emotion has to be taken on faith. We wish for more moments like the one when the ex-boy realizes that the "vanishing" fireflies he had bottled years ago had been freed by his father. "I thought you knew," the father says simply. The emotion is there, in the words themselves, and that's when they move against a universal backdrop--the failure to connect, the passage of time.

Then, too, the 12 stories are so similar. Publishers like a collection like this. It seems almost a novel. They feel secure, like the teacher in the title story who is having simultaneous affairs with all his female colleagues. "If I am alone with one, the others leave us alone because the only time any one of them wants to be with me is when she can be alone with me." No gaps. Alone, though, these stories are experimental, even risky. Together, they make us wish Martone hadn't played it quite so safe.

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