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IN BRIEF

Fiction

October 13, 1991|Michael Harris

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE by Kent Nelson (Gibbs Smith: $18.95; 208 pp.) In this collection of 14 stories, issued at the same time as "Language in the Blood," Nelson ranges far from the Southwest--to the museums of New York, the schoolyards of Boston, the fishing grounds of Florida, a summer camp in the Adirondacks, a penitentiary. He observes all these places well. But the Southwestern tales--in which the landscape is more a character than a backdrop--show where his heart belongs.

These are realistic stories that move slowly and carefully to a climax, then take often surprising paths. The boulder that surfaces in an old Mexican woman's garden becomes a symbol of everything in life that can't be budged. A strange object that washes up on a beach--people joke that it's a mine from Nicaragua--blows up a man's marriage. A little boy keeps disappearing from school; his parents hire a detective to follow him, only to be confronted by another mystery. A youth isolated in a trailer in the desert finds that an affair with one of his father's girlfriends brings him closer to his dead mother.

Sometimes the surprise comes in where the story doesn't go. A young woman inherits a ranch in Colorado and returns after an absence of years. She seems likely to resume her rivalry with a pretty ex-schoolmate; then to take up with an ex-boyfriend, who is divorced; then to discover the cache of short stories she heard her mother type on lonely prairie nights. None of it happens. Hence the title: "A Country of My Own Making."

The country that Nelson creates for himself here is broad psychologically as well as geographically. An encounter with a dying dog in Mexico, an antelope hunt in Arizona, an East Coast housewife's decision to leave her family and go to college--he makes good use of them all. Western writing is traditionally macho, but although Nelson can put two men and a gun into a boat and threaten murder with the best of them, his consistently strong portraits of women show how far he can travel beyond the stereotype.

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