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Fiction in Brief

SHAPES MISTAKEN, b y Ross Feld (North Point: $18.95; 199 pp.)

June 04, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

This comedy of errors owes its charm to its endearingly sensitive and unpretentious protagonist, Charlie Shapes, the middle-aged, Jewish owner of a store for top-grade stereo equipment. Like Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler, Shapes (it's Shah-pis , he is forever telling people) is searching for some glimmer of beauty and promise in a tragicomic world. Shapes is more forgiving than Sammler, though, too amused by follies of his own and others to become brooding or cynical, even when he begins to realize that in life, no good deed goes unpunished.

As in his 1982 novel, "Only Shorter," Ross Feld spins a unique kind of dark comedy, one laced with empathy. While much of Feld's humor comes from depicting hapless lives, he is never condescending, encouraging us to laugh with, not at, his busily eccentric characters: the owners of the failing "D-Lux Motel Restaurant" (rushing to please Shapes, their only lunch customer, they pat his back, dole out huge portions of food and come up with "surprise desserts," as if, a friend of Shapes quips, "they were next going to serve up their virgin daughter"); Shapes' son-in-law Bennett, "a skinny kid who flew against the wind to love (Shapes' daughter) . . . and then, in essence, collapsed around himself, all initiative gone"; and Shapes himself, trying to seduce a local judge by timidly offering to photograph her ("I do mostly nature studies. Indoor still lifes . . . figure studies") but meeting, as always, with disappointment. "As much as he would have liked to renounce his habit of renunciation," Feld writes, "life tended to have other ideas."

Usually, Shapes takes these defeats in stride, but midway through this novel, his wife dies and his usually sure sense of equanimity begins to shows signs of strain. Suffering a panic attack while walking on a parkway, he sees "the sky itself jumping higher and broader. ... The surface outline of things seemed the same, but stretchier --everything giving itself more and more inner room, loden-leafed yew bushes becoming unlimited forests, sycamores swaying in breezes reaching them from unthinkable realms of sky, covering miles with each tremble."

After several weeks of biofeedback therapy, Shapes recovers and regains authority over his life. We never doubt that he will make it, though, for Shapes is gifted with an ability to remain open to the world that enables him to tolerate social conflicts that most people would find claustrophobic. Even in the midst of his panic attack, for instance, he confronts the "elongating world" by stretching out his arms "in frightened greeting to all this awesome clearance."

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