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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 22, 1993|DICK RORABACK

SILENT PASSENGERS by Larry Woiwode (Atheneum: $19; 192 pp.) "Wanting an Orange" is deceptive. The first of Larry Woiwode's otherwise unsettling short stories, it is a Canticle to the Queen of Citrus; almost a mantra; a miracle to the winter-logged boy in the northern Great Plains. "A pebbled sun," he calls it, a reminder of vistas less bleak.

The orange, though, is an interloper in Woiwode's empty, unforgiving North. It is a place of testing, of stern values, of silence. It is a refuge from the places where oranges grow, a land to which hardy fathers relocate their children, with mixed results: In "Possession" a father abruptly realizes that his demands on his son have made the boy fearful. In "Blindness" a struggling free-lance architect loses his sight in snowy woods and must be led home by his 4-year-old; in the title story a boy is crushed into a coma by a ranch horse. "Owen's Father" contemplates suicide.

There is blessed relief--literally--in "Confessions," a lyrical embrace of old-fashioned Catholicism. An altar boy in a confessional, at an age when he is still awed by the Church's mysteries, is grounded by the priest's whispered message, "Tell your dot, Chonny, dat ve'll be playing pinochle at da parsonage tonight." Years later he returns to the Church, awe now supplemented by understanding.

For the most part, however, Woiwode's stories are uncompromising, but finely wrought. Along with fruit you can feel and storms you can taste, there are sentences you can sing; ideas that resonate while they disturb.

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