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Tales of Girls in Strange Danger : SHADOW BANDS by Jeanne Schinto (Ontario Review Press: $9.95, paper; 170 pp.)

December 24, 1989|Judith Freeman | Freeman is the author of "Family Attractions," a collection of stories (Viking-Penguin), and "The Chinchilla Farm," a novel recently published by W.W. Norton

In "The Friendships of Girls Unpopular Together," one of the 12 stories in this collection, two unpopular, lonely girls, Mary Jane and the unnamed narrator of the tale, become pen pals through a Beatles fan club. They finally meet for a weekend at Mary Jane's house in Bridgeport and take in a Herman's Hermits concert. While staring at the lovey-dovey couples at the concert, they grow increasingly glum: "How did one learn to kiss people?" The narrator sees in Mary Jane a mirror of her own awkward solitude, and it makes the longing she feels more desperate. Besides, Herman's Hermits just aren't the Beatles. They can't wait for the weekend to end.

Then suddenly, at the end of their visit, they find themselves briefly aboard an ocean liner, saying goodby to friends of Mary Jane's family who are sailing to Europe. They wander off alone and discover three Frenchmen swimming in the ship's pool. "You girls aren't rich by any chance, are you?" one asks. The men don't do anything much except banter with them, but the girls' romantic lives are born:

"I noticed that Mary Jane's posture had changed. One shoulder was flung back; one dipped forward. She no longer slouched. . . . I took off my Ringo cap and ran my fingers through my unwashed hair. Where was I getting my nerve?" In a menacing turn, a device I find characteristic of these tales, the story ends with a near-drowning, imparting a slightly sinister feel to their initiation.

"Shadow Bands" is a wonderful collection of stories. It satisfies all the hopes one has for the genre. Each story focuses on a single incident, a bit of action that ends in some sort of revelation--a flash of insight. What visibly happens --quickly, abruptly--is crucial.

But if a story is to make an impression on us, it will do so not merely through the intensity of its concentrated action but still more through the implications which that event suggests but which cannot, in so compressed a space, be fully developed. It is within the shadowy realm of the merely suggested that these stories derive much of their power.

The opening story, for instance, called "Caddie's Day," features a small girl, who is walking home when she passes a golf course where the caddies are gathered behind a shed. Instead of being allowed to pass, the the child is stopped by the caddies, who demand, "Hey, girlie, you've got to pay the toll." It seems a harmless game, but when they quickly turn her upside down, holding her ankles so that her dress flutters over her head, and snap the elastic of her pants, something quite terrible is suddenly happening in the story.

Furthermore, underscoring the caddies' action, there is the subtlest suggestion that a game she plays with her father, where he squeezes her hand until she says she loves him with enough fervor to satisfy him, is also based on some similar unpleasantness.

Two of the strongest stories are "From a Juror's Notebook" and "Shadow Bands," in which themes of violence and racism are examined.

In the first, the narrator, a white woman journalist, is sitting on a jury to determine the guilt or innocence of Clary Wright, who is accused of breaking into Alfonse Harrison's house, stealing jewelry and a money order, and holding a gun on Alfonse while a man named "Cheese" rapes his wife. Did things really happen this way, or is this a case of a drug deal gone bad and lies being told for revenge? (Both Clary and Alfonse are black; both have prison records and drug-abuse histories, and the woman does not report the rape for six weeks.) If these things really did happen the way the prosecution contends, is the man who stands by and does nothing as guilty as the man who commits the rape? "Too many black men have gone to jail for rapes they never committed," argues one juror, who favors leniency, though Clary is convicted anyway.

The story is fascinating--actually haunting--because in the end, the reader is as uncertain of the guilt or innocence of Clary as the jury seems to be. The same niggling uncertainty marks "Shadow Bands," the story of a precocious pubescent girl and her rather suffocating and exploitative friendship with the 5-year-old black boy who lives next door. When she sees a man stabbed in front of the boy's house, and finds herself the victim of racial violence, we wonder, what are the chances of racial harmony being achieved in this world when even the kids are full of hate?

Generally, truth really is stranger than fiction. But it's not the case here, where the lives portrayed are so quirky and eerie, yet always absolutely credible. This is Jeanne Schinto's first book, and it marks the emergence of a very fine writer.

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