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Plumbing the Depths With Brodkey : STORIES IN AN ALMOST CLASSICAL MODE by Harold Brodkey (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 599 pp.)

September 25, 1988|RICHARD EDER

In New York's Heraclitean literary world, where all is flux, what is written can be a sensation, but it passes. The abiding sensations concern what is not written.

Until Ian Hamilton's ill-fated biographical attempt decanted a dribble of unsatisfactory and trivializing information, the perennial question was: What is J. D. Salinger up to? And it still is: What is Thomas Pynchon up to? And for decades, it has been: What is Harold Brodkey up to?

What John Updike or Philip Roth or Anne Tyler published was more or less fascinating. But how could it hope to compete with what Salinger, Pynchon and Brodkey did not publish?

Thirty years ago, Brodkey wrote a number of short stories (collected as "First Love and Other Stories"), that took an age--college--and a time--the '50s--and made a province out of them; one of those provinces we visit while traveling and that travel with us ever since, like Umbria or Avila.

After that, there was what has been taken, perhaps puzzlingly, as silence. Brodkey was at work on his life's work, a big book, a Bildungsroman . Proust was mentioned. It was to be called "A Party of Animals." It did not appear.

On the other hand, 18 stories did appear over the years. This is, at least, an unusual kind of silence; and now it has been collected in a 600-page volume entitled "Stories in an Almost Classical Mode."

So it is not silence, really, and yet it has some of the same effects. It is a stream of messages whose texture is alternately magical and dense, whose direction zigzags, one that repeats itself with puzzling variations, and sometimes contradicts itself altogether.

Take the places where they were published: The New Yorker, Esquire, The Quarterly, and a collection entitled "Women and Angels" and issued by The Jewish Publication Society of America. What kind of beast makes its home, simultaneously, in an aerie, a fern bar, a faculty common room and a cloister?

The stories may or may not be extracts from the long-awaited novel, but they seem to be related to it. Two-thirds of them--400 pages or so--have a proto-novelistic form. They make a rough kind of fictional biography of a personage we glimpse in various guises in infancy, childhood, adolescence and in college. Call them--to distinguish them from the other unrelated or less related pieces--the "Wiley" stories.

Wiley is the name the protagonist is given at times; at other times, he is unnamed. His mother is variously Doris, Leila and Lily; his father, from story to story, is Joe Brodkey or S. L. Cohn or S. L. Silenowicz. A sister named Nonie appears sometimes; so does an Alsatian cook, Ann Marie.

There are variations and contradictions. A memory of Wiley's father taking him from a bed where he is variously ill, injured or simply sulky, and carrying him out in fearful exhilaration to look over a parapet is set both in hot sunshine and drizzle.

In one story, the mother is dying, horribly, of cancer; in another, her illness is less apparent or may not exist. The father comes home one day, slams down a huge wad of dubiously obtained money on the table, and quarrels with his wife. In another story, the father gives the money to the boy, takes him out, lets him choose a new car, comes back with the car, and, again, quarrels with his wife.

There are constants under the variations. The boy was adopted at age 2; his natural mother was a big, exuberant Jewish immigrant who ran a junkyard and died young. The adoptive mother is shrill, ill, smothering, detached, vain, smart and deluded, all at once. Similarly, the father is bluff, warm, elusive, selfish and indifferent. The older sister is jealous and tormenting. The cook is a motherly refuge, until she suddenly leaves.

Through all its variations, the family is a grid of neediness, love and agony. Often, as when the sister breaks Wiley's nose with a mop handle, or when the dying mother exposes her deformed torso to him, they seem to be freaks.

But Brodkey is not writing about freaks. He is writing about the freakishness that lives in the seemingly normal. A family is a snake-pit. It is also a family. It is a pain continuum--the title of one of the more spectacular stories. It is the one where Nonie torments her little brother with imperceptibly mounting savagery until she seriously hurts him.

But until his nose actually breaks, the 4-year-old takes the grotesque ordeal as simply one more given in the family's ecology of unhappiness. When Nonie is in trouble--the father favors her; the mother is resentful--domestic pain is high. The boy adapts to his role in the four-way continuum.

"It is better for them to approve of Nonie"--he is thinking of his parents--"and anyway we're not sure that in this world, as things go, Nonie is really awful." That we is brilliant. Pain is a family's common task and, as with farm families, even the little ones help with the chores for survival's sake.

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