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IN BRIEF

Fiction

March 08, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

IN THE LAND OF MEN by Antonya Nelson (William Morrow: $19; 239 pp.) . Plenty of men, and boys, too, appear in these 14 stories of the Midwest and Southwest: the three brothers of a Chicago rape victim who confine a suspect in the trunk of their car; the migrant laborer who builds an adobe house for a woman in New Mexico; teen-agers drowning in hormones; ex-husbands who whine and bluster on the phone; the guy on a motorcycle who shows up at a family reunion in Cairo, Ill., and takes Mom away.

Still, these are women's stories, if we accept the cliche that the real land of men is where businessmen deal, politicians connive, soldiers fight and the pursuit of sex is just another safari. These stories are about love, family, relationships. A limitation? Not for Antonya Nelson ("The Expendables"), who has no patience with cliches and whose new collection has variety, style and a satisfying heft.

Nelson, above all, can tell a tale. She begins with a person in transition--a wedding photographer afraid of losing her job, a con man crashing in somebody else's house, a woman remembering her glamorous, doomed best friend, a convicted murderer's son who has a crush on his fourth-grade teacher--and, through sheer good writing, makes us care. Then she gets the action going sideways, like a car in a skid. Almost anything can happen. Escape. Disaster. Or something unsettlingly, ambiguously in between.

The fourth-grader pins his hopes on his teacher's sternness: Maybe she will truly like him instead of pitying him like everyone else. The woman with the adobe house falls in love with the laborer, knowing "he is wrong for me in a hundred ways." Men and women alike put themselves at risk. Nelson's men are moody, sometimes insensitive, occasionally violent; like moons circling her women's worlds, they exert tidal forces of attraction and repulsion. Yet they are human, too, and worlds in their own right. The title says it after all: This is their land.

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