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Wild and Tender Places of the Heart : WHISTLING AND OTHER STORIES, By Myra Goldberg (Zoland Books: $19.95; 182 pp.) : COME TO ME, By Amy Bloom (Aaron Asher Books / HarperCollins: $20; 180 pp.)

June 13, 1993|Elizabeth Benedict | Benedict's first novel, "Slow Dancing," was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. Her latest novel, "Safe Conduct," was just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

A writer friend once spoke of a wise woman to whom she intended to show her latest manuscript. "Her intelligence is so vast and generous," said the writer, "that you just want to fall back into it." Then the writer tipped backward a bit, pretending she was about to fall into a sturdy, waiting embrace. By the time I finished Amy Bloom's and Myra Goldberg's remarkable debut short story collections, I was ready to do the same. I knew I could trust either of them with my latest manuscript and my darkest secrets.

Like a lot of people writing short stories these days, Myra Goldberg is a masterful stylist; she follows Flaubert's dictum that a line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. But what separates her from the crowd of recent MFA grads and virtuoso 24-year-olds, is that she's visited all the wild and tender places of the heart, and she's ready to do business with them. And what an ear for dialogue! These 11 stories crackle with the myriad voices of New York. Imagine a Jewish Alice Munro on the Upper West Side, or a 40ish Grace Paley whose characters read Chekhov and Henry James and talk endlessly to shrinks who never say a word. About a woman called Emily: "Meanwhile, her check to her analyst bounced and he'd refused to see her until she wrote him a replacement, which she refused to do" because he had been so distant.

Goldberg's stories are short on plot and her prose is as spare as haiku, but her voice is so strong, her characters so wrenchingly believable, and she reveals them with such insight and wry wit that she creates a thriving, complex universe. The stories are not literally interconnected, but they augment and complement one another. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All that "happens" in some of these pieces is a man and woman spend the night together; a brother and sister try to piece together conflicting stories of their grandfather's life in Russia; a group of women tell stories about hair.

" 'In Hiroshima,' " says one, " 'where I went with all kinds of doctors on that trip, there was this sign in this museum. 'Japanese women value their black hair.' This is the atom bomb museum, and the picture here is a woman with most of her scalp bare. . . . Her whole life is ruined, I thought. . . . Then something American, tastelessly pragmatic but smart, came over me. Why doesn't she . . . buy a wig, for God's sake . . . and get on with her life and solve her problems?' " One describes her mother having her head shaved in a Nazi death camp; another remembers her "18-foot Afro." Told completely in dialogue, "Hair" is not just quirky and charming; like most of the stories in "Whistling and Other Stories," it's about moral choices, language, the struggle between body and soul: " ' . . . my mother in Astoria used to say, it's not what's outside that counts, it's what's inside. I never for a moment believed it.' "

Each story is ambitious in its own way. In "Country Music," a young white woman living in a slum tries to avoid a troubled black teen-age neighbor at great cost to both of them. In "Story," a woman who wants a baby is writing a story about a woman who wants a baby.

Amy Bloom, a practicing psychotherapist for 14 years, began writing stories six years ago. "Come to Me" is so rich, moving and gracefully written, it's hard to believe she hasn't been doing this all her life. Her stories, set mostly in unnamed suburbs, are more conventionally structured than Goldberg's. Plots turn on family crises, individuals at a crossroads and illicit love affairs of many kinds. Not surprisingly, shrinks make a fair number of appearances. My favorite shrink scene is in "Silver Water," a stunning story (selected for "Best American Short Stories 1992") about a family trying to cope with a psychotic daughter, Rose.

"We all hated the family therapists," says Rose's sister. "The worst family therapist we ever had sat in a pale green room with us, visibly taking stock of my mother's ethereal beauty. . . . Rose was beyond fashion that year, in one of her dancing teddy-bear smocks and extra-extra-large Celtics sweat pants. Mr. Walker read Rose's file in front of us and then watched in alarm as Rose began crooning, beautifully, and slowly massaging her breasts. My mother and I laughed, and even my father (a psychiatrist) started to smile. . . . This was the seventh family therapist we had seen. . . . After 14 minutes, Mr. Walker decided that our time was up and walked out. . . ."

This passage, with its breezy voice, its insights, ironies and dead-on details, is typical of Bloom at her best. There's not much that falls short in the collection, but four stories, including "Silver Water," stand out as small masterpieces. In "Love Is Not a Pie" a young woman whose mother has just died tries to make sense of her mother's illicit love affair. The story is part feminist fairy tale (the husband accepts the lover into the house; the two men do a lot of cooking and baking), and pure joy to read. "Semper Fidelis" is a riveting tale of a young woman ministering to--as she tries to separate from--her aging husband who's dying of cancer. In 13 pages, Bloom conveys an amazing mixture of love, guilt, resentment, sexual desire, jealousy and shattering grief.

All that's missing from these wonderful collections are the authors' phone numbers. I can't bear the thought of being out of touch with these women for very long.

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