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IN BRIEF

Fiction

January 16, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

KEY WEST TALES by John Hersey. (Knopf: $22; 227 pp.) John Hersey was born in China in 1914, and died in Key West in March of 1993. He was an elegant man; Hemingway, Capote, Cheever and Updike all rolled into one, and these final stories are his goodby to a place that he loved and that served up strange characters, a rebellious history and an ample underbelly for his writing. But the very best story in here has little to do with Key West, could happen anywhere, and does. "Get Up, Sweet Slug-a-Bed" is about about a good friend dying of AIDS, a once powerful and egocentric man who for decades kept alive a slow-burning, unrequited and unspoken passion for a sixth-grade classmate. All the details of his care and passage are here: the family that is so pathetically and inexcusably out of it, the friends that want to do the right thing but trespass on Billy's dignity again and again, the overly (pathologically so) solicitous around-the-clock nurse; all the people that walk away with pieces of the patient's very large life until there's almost nothing left. You may notice with this and other Hersey stories that you rarely put it down in the middle; the very accuracy of his reporting--relationships as they evolve and dissolve, characters that march blindly to their fate, moral questions not so much debated as traversed--gives a seamlessness and inevitability to his plots (as in "The Wedding Dress," in which a woman marries a windsurfer who, guess what, would rather be windsurfing).

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