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Hidden Pictures of Sorrow and Pain : BELIEVE THEM Stories by Mary Robison (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 146 pp.)

June 19, 1988|RICHARD EDER

Mary Robison's characters need to grieve and lament but they can't. They can only smile, be kind, be recklessly witty, and push enlightened self-mockery to suicidal extremes.

Sorrow and pain are underground messages in these finely made stories. They are hidden pictures, as in the children's books where, if you look hard--but not too hard or it won't work--you see a giant concealed in a peaceable barnyard.

Behind Robison's intelligent and decent faces--with ruefulness and irony as the limits of expression--there is a face of anguish.

Why should the message be hidden? Why must pain take an Aesopian form; like dissent under a dictatorship, where fables are quietly slipped into a film or a play under the eyes of the State? Does our state--lower-case--make unfeasible, as situation comedies do, a howl of despair? And how sick does this render our buoyancy?

These are the kinds of questions that Robison points to, without ever quite pointing. The minimalist authors do not separate their voices from those of their characters; they do not point. Only once does Robison, who is a minimalist in some respects though not in others, wave to us directly.

In "Your Errant Mom," a woman who has left home for an older and richer man is trying to hold on to her old life even while abandoning it. At the end, after realizing that she has lost her involvement with her husband's and daughter's affairs, and perhaps her own identity as well, she says:

"I would sleep on my stomach now, without a pillow, and with no sustained thoughts. I wanted what I wanted. Before bed, I had read stories with I-narrators who could've been me."

They are "her," of course; the stories are by Robison. The author's wave is jaunty and cramped. Waving and drowning.

All of the stories in "Believe Them" are written with a mastery of the surface. Whether the narrative voice is calm and matter-of-fact, cheerful, or mildly overwrought, we are presented with a world where matters are proceeding, perhaps not terribly well, but at least under some kind of reasonable control. What makes the difference between the merely well-written and the genuinely moving is the quality of the hidden picture that emerges.

In "While Home," the exchanges among a father, an adult son who is having trouble getting his life started, and a younger son who is still at home are affectionate and marked by evident good will. Underneath is something rawer: the older son's shock at finding that the world is not easy, and the father's fear for a child he can no longer help. The contrast does not really come off, though; the tones are too subdued.

"Adore Her" is about a young man who has settled for a decently paying job, a comfortable apartment and a pretty girlfriend. Finding a stranger's wallet that contains a small chamber of horrors--pictures of 15 different women and an address that identifies the owner as a settled, middle-class householder--the young man realizes he has settled too easily. His apartment is tacky; he hates his job; his girlfriend uses him as a convenience. Again, the hidden picture is almost as flat as the one on the surface.

"For Real" is much stronger. The narrator is a young woman who presents an afternoon B-movie show on a small TV station. Her commentary is derisive and comical, and she wears a clown's outfit to deliver it.

Between camera sessions, she thinks of the man she's been living with. He is a German; she had intended to marry him to help him get resident status, even though she doesn't love him. But he has just told her that he may not need her help and won't marry her because she might fall in love with someone "for real."

All this while, she is adjusting her floppy shoes, her purple gloves, her clown's wig. They mock her thoughts. It is as if Hamlet delivered his soliloquies standing on his head. What is "for real" to someone who faces the world in disguise? Perhaps she does love the German; perhaps she has no way of distinguishing.

The picture emerges, painful and moving. So it does in "Trying," one of the best stories in the collection. The narrator is Bridey, a knowing, irrepressible teen-ager. She is the bright eccentric in her convent school--arguing with her teachers, making speeches when called on instead of answering questions, sneaking out of class, giving agitprop lectures on nuclear disarmament in the locker room, and eternally in detention.

It is amiable detention. The nuns are exasperated but loving. Her parents are unconventional and loving. Bridey bursts with charm, originality, promise. And Robison suggests her peril. She may literally burst. She is at the naked, unarmed hinge of growing up. The grown-ups are all too understanding; she has nothing to butt her head against or to contain her flights.

Another of the best stories is "Seizing Control." Five children spend a night alone at home. Their father is at the hospital where their mother is giving birth. The neighbors are available, if necessary; it is perfectly safe.

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