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Finding Something Gorgeous in the Ruins : NOT A FREE SHOW by Helen Schulman (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 159 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a fiction writer who reviews frequently for The Times

Helen Schulman's stories are exuberant. They are noisy and wise. They are ambitious. While other writers her age (27) might content themselves handling the hip or familiar in spare, flat prose, hers is a literature of opulence--of imagistic language, full-spectrum emotion, large themes. No one has told Schulman that a story can't be about everything.

Hence, among the 16 stories in her debut collection, one, "The Heart of My Heart," begins with a man's confession of enduring love for a girl he knew at 15 and proceeds to explore the parallel lives of parents and children and the effect on a family of a suicidal child. At the same time, the story is a portrait of a successful marriage. It is a meditation on the power of persistent adolescent fantasy to ease the tragedies of adulthood.

Another story, the title piece, is an episodic narrative of growing up, its focus, the evolving intensity of a mother-daughter bond. Along the way, it dramatizes old age and death, looks at the nature of love and identity and, again, ruminates on fate, which bestows no pleasure without cost.

Admittedly, not all her stories are as rich. Among the short-shorts, "We Were of Two Minds," about a bigamist and his daughters, has the rattling momentum of a nursery rhyme, with an equivalent lack of character development.

Other shorts--"Siblings," about a matched pair of drug burnouts, and "Pushing the Point," about urban throw-away girls--feel like sketches for larger stories. One larger story, "I Am Miss America," seems a slightly off experiment as the non-handicapped, female writer adopts the persona of a paraplegic man.

For the most part though, it is this willingness to risk, to hurtle into the mysterious, the extreme, even the ugly, that makes Schulman's work so exciting.

In "Like Brothers," she stages a fifth reunion for "Delta Gram," the "drug frat" of an Upstate New York college. Her down-in-the-dirt cave boys are exactly right: J.J., "ruling over the barbeque . . . a pair of jockeys on his head like a chef's hat"; the Anti-Christ and the Bongman, guzzling beer, eating with their fists, loading women on their backs.

This is "Animal House" without the whitewash, evoked in deft language that combines collegiate slang with barnyard imagery hard to quote in a family newspaper. What lifts the story above a cartoon, or even a sociological curiosity, is the conflict of Boz, the protagonist. Despite his failure with women outside the macho brotherhood, he is unable to return to the primal wallow. Instinctively (though not, within the story's terms, inconceivably), he fumbles toward another man, a quiet student, eventually sharing a wild hammock with him as fireworks burst in the distance.

The lurch toward the unexpected yet familiar moment of redemption is commonplace in Schulman's work. "I have found that among the ruins, always, there is something gorgeous," says the narrator of another story, "James Dean's Widow."

Like Boz, many of Schulman's characters are disillusioned. At 15 or 30, they have already been abandoned, left broke or childless, or simply haunted by the fleeting quality of happiness. Nevertheless, they are still open to possibility. They hope; they laugh. They face the worst with graveyard humor that wards off self-pity and despair.

When "James Dean's Widow" is flown to Hawaii by her sympathetic parents, she finds "an endless supply of beefy guys dying to transmit their diseases." When Jamie, the paraplegic of "I Am Miss America," attempts a pickup in a bar, he concocts a phony Vietnam story and shows a picture of himself and his retriever: " 'This was me . . . a strapping six-footer. The dog is dead too.' "

Throughout the book, Schulman paints her characters and their ilks with sharp economy. K.T., the barmaid-on-a-camping trip of "In God's Country," has "little pillows of mauve . . . under the very same gray of her eyes" and "looked as if she had been beat up on, which drew people to her with the intensity of protection. . . ."

Elsewhere, Schulman works her language like a poet, giving us a Pacific Ocean that "rippled like muscle, like skin supported by muscle, muscle flexing and stretching beneath." Girls on a Hawaiian beach resemble "French loaves glazed with egg whites." A woman sleeps with her "Shirley Temple wig curled like a kitten" on her lap.

Like her imagery, Schulman's stories reach beyond the ordinary for something heightened yet true, a fresh look at what it means to be human. In her hands, words have the power to illuminate dark corners of experience. And though darkness inevitably returns, it has a different quality evermore to those who have known light.

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