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Master of the Cold and Wintry Distances : A KISS IN THE HOTEL JOSEPH CONRAD AND OTHER STORIES by Howard Norman (Summit: $17.95; 134 pp.)

September 03, 1989|RICHARD EDER

These stories by Howard Norman resemble musical triads with the middle line missing. The high and low notes move at a gaunt distance from each other; and there is an emptiness in between, and a haunting uncertainty as to major and minor keys.

His characters are unsettled; sometimes by calamity, sometimes by age--in several of the stories, the very young deal with the wildness of the very old--and sometimes by their awkward inability to fit in and get things right.

The stories strike notes of odd extremity. In some, the oddity seems contrived, a quirk. In the best of them, it is a rip in our insulation; the winter seeps in, and we feel an anguish that has been discovered in us, not inflicted.

Cold and remoteness provide a singular inspiration to Norman, who brought them strikingly to life two years ago in his novel, "The Northern Lights," set in upper Canada. Here, in "Jennie Aloo," he evokes the subarctic distance of Churchill, a town on the shore of Hudson Bay, and 100 stops from Winnipeg on the train that serves it twice a week. Many of the stops are signaled simply by the presence of suitcases beside the tracks. When they hear the train, "Families would appear out of the woods."

"Winters were god-awful long," the 19-year-old narrator says. "Six or seven months, and they could bury your heart's longing for the rest of the world or make it slide wildly around the frozen streets. Each train arrived with 1,000 miles of snow on its roof."

His mastery of distances and cold allows Norman unforcedly to impart a moral dimension to them. Suddenly, in a different place, our senses are opened. Here they open to two wisps of story; one about the narrator's parents, the other about an old Eskimo woman.

The parents have moved back to Nova Scotia, after an ill-fated attempt by the father to run his mail-order model-plane business from Churchill, simply because he liked the notion of its remoteness. The mother contracted "a mental disease of the ear"--the father's euphemism for a breakdown--and three of his models were splintered when the mail plane crashed on takeoff because of a cross wind.

Settlement is more than an act of the civilized will; the North can ruin it--or be ruined by it. This second theme comes out in the body of the story. A jukebox, destined for Montreal, is misdelivered to Churchill; it sits for weeks on the station platform. Jennie, the Eskimo, hears it play, and is convinced that it contains the spirit of her missing son.

The narrator tells of her regular visits to put in a nickel and have "a talk." Finally, during a blizzard, she brings her entire savings--$7 or $8 in nickels--and resists all efforts to drag her away. The snow buries her. There is something a little too shapely about this, but not about the two images that make the story so powerful: the rebuffed urban encroacher, the aged wilderness child perishing from encroachment.

A different kind of extremity animates "Old Swimmers," but Norman introduces it imperceptibly. It starts off simply as an adolescent's quiet rebellion against two stuffy parents. They talk of a black-sheep aunt who drinks and is eccentric and lives alone. "Her mind is unkempt," Jake's father says. Their disapproval ignites his passion.

With a quixotic excess only a 14-year-old could manage, Jake begins to write letters to Aunt Helen; once-a-week, and 30 or 40 pages each. This goes on for several years, despite her utter failure to answer. Finally, a post card comes: "Nephew. You have worn me down. Why not visit."

So Jake, with his parents' permission and considerable nervousness, takes the train to Halifax. "Maybe this is a bad idea," he tells his aunt when she meets him at the station. "I'm not sure I like meeting you just yet." And the story shifts.

Aunt Helen is a survivor of the World War II sinking of the Canadian ferry Caribou by a German U-boat, with a loss of 400 lives. Each year, she goes to a reunion of the survivors. Now she proposes to take Jake, because she wants a relative to be there for her marriage to another survivor.

The reunion and the banquet are ordinary enough, but gradually they are infiltrated with the ghostly presence of the sea and the calamity. Imperceptibly and beautifully, Jake's story becomes a story of the shadow cast by extremity, and of what it means to grow up.

These two pieces are not perfect--Norman is still a little unhandy at such scut-work of fiction as plots, transitions and the amount of heralding you need to make a point--but their modal distances are unforgettable. In these, and in at least two others, Norman explores a territory as strange and resonant as any Arctic terrain.

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