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THE NARRATIVE ARTS : LIMBO RIVER By Rick Hillis (University of Pittsburgh Press: $17.95; 152 pp.)

September 09, 1990|MICHAEL HARRIS

Raymond Carver territory has an outpost in Saskatchewan, Canada, and that's where Rick Hillis sets the nine stories in this collection, which won the 1990 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Blue-collar workers and bums, alcoholics and artists, farm hands and nursing-home attendants, teachers and children struggle through a world where winters are long, money is short and dreams tend to come true only in dreams.

The difference is that Hillis' characters are generally younger than Carver's, less resigned, more actively resentful of the "Big Machine" that grinds them down to fit their limited roles.

A teacher turned cab driver blames his madness--a pig about to be butchered "spoke" to him--on "(respectable) people and what they stood for." A biker whose wife works on a pipeline crew reacts to her promotion: "Colin's never been more than a grunt in his entire life. He hates work, careers. There's never been a foreman he could stomach, and now he's about to be married to one." In the title story, a man jailed for drunk driving tells a boy: "I drank for to get free, and then I drove for to get free faster. Someday you'll know what I'm talking about." And the boy concludes: "It was one of the few things Marcel ever told me that was true."

"Limbo River" offers two kinds of stories. Some of the shorter ones--about a one-handed guitarist and an old codger who kicks 80-yard field goals--have strong currents of fantasy. The longer ones are realistic; their spare descriptions and exact speech create a kind of rough poetry. Two tales about the pipeline workers and their families do justice to the viewpoints of men and women, adults and kids alike. And even a story told exclusively by a smart city boy bullied by--and manipulating--an older cousin during a summer on a farm admits the conclusion that "to them, I was the bad guy because they couldn't understand the only weapons I had to fight with."

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