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IN BRIEF

Fiction

February 17, 1991|Michael Harris

HARDWARE RIVER by Alyson Hagy (Poseidon Press: $18.95; 166 pp.) . Readers of these seven stories about violence and desire in the rural Midwest and South are advised to be patient: Alyson Hagy saves the best for last.

The title story--about a lonely Virginia farmer's love for a witchy woman--leads off, and although it's the gaudiest of the bunch, it gives the impression of straining. Hagy sets it in a framing story (which goes nowhere) in order to have another farmer narrate it (in an uneasy blend of bad grammar and near-poetry). These are technical problems that beset Faulkner, too, but he handled them better, in part because his narrators had more of a sense of humor.

Two of the next three stories are short, and therefore slight, because Hagy is a writer who seems to need length for the slow accretion of physical and psychological detail. She hits her stride, however, in the remaining one. A young man visits a Civil War battlefield with his married lover and her son. The boy's confidence that he could duplicate Confederate bravery haunts the man, all too aware of "the inevitable douse of failure and the struggle to capture even one inch of our lives."

Having seemingly proved that she deals with modern, alienated people better than with simple, elemental ones, Hagy confounds us in the final three stories, all of which succeed. A boy who flees farm life and a crippled Old German Baptist woman who finds meaning and "native rest" in that same life; a bisexual ranch boss, the stableboy he seduces and the youth's half-knowing mother; the country boys who senselessly shoot a teen-age girl and the transplanted city folk caught up in the fear rippling from the murder--all live, in the peculiarly solid yet dreamy way of D. H. Lawrence characters, part dirt, part air.

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