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IN BRIEF

Fiction

October 02, 1994|ERIKA TAYLOR

MENDOCINO by Ann Packer (Chronicle Books: $9.95; 214 pp.) Writing about ordinary people and their ordinary lives is, in many ways, more courageous and difficult than writing about mutants, psychics or murderers. The prose has to better, the characters more complex to compensate for the lack of pyrotechnics. Ann Packer's first collection of short stories, "Mendocino," manages to be consistently engaging without a deranged belly dancer anywhere in sight.

The best of these pieces all coalescence around the same emotion--intense, unsatisfied need. The need for a dead father, a baby, a sense of self, a connection with the world are all thrown into sharp relief by Packer's uncanny ability to hold back until the perfect moment and then reveal the deepest heart of her characters.

Another wonderful quality of this collection is the way the pieces begin. In an oblique fashion, Packer's opening paragraphs give up the secret of each story, yet to find out how and why that secret was born one must keep reading. And it's hard not to. Here is the first sentences of "My Mother's Yellow Dress," possibly Packer's best work. "Shortly before my mother's death I said an unforgivable thing to her. I did not at the time know she was dying, although if I'd known better how to look at her perhaps I'd have seen that something was wrong. By how to look at her I mean, of course, into her: past the brilliant costume to the very blue flame of her heart."

Is there anything else to be desired in "Mendocino?" I'm not sure. These pieces, although very well-written, feel slightly enclosed. Unless the reader's world closely matches the character's world, a few people may come away captivated and moved, but not challenged.

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