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BOOK REVIEW : Montana Spawns Tales of Desolation, Not Defeat : BLUE SPRUCE by David Long ; Scribner $20, 256 pages

March 30, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

If David Long's Montana stories were paintings they would be realistic scenes with the horizon placed high to give the figures an appearance of being dwarfed by the ground, the rocks, the dilapidated houses, and the wind-bent trees.

It is Big Sky country, yet the sky and the light do very little for its inhabitants; it is the earth that dominates and overcomes. The collection could be entitled: "The Plains that Broke the Plough."

Not that the protagonists in the "Blue Spruce" stories are broken. They are buffeted and worn; they suffer defeats but are not entirely defeated. They end with a faint lightening, a small upturn of hope, though these are more discouraging, in a way, than surrender would be. Against the steady high-plains wind they keep walking while gradually losing ground. They are subsiding ripples in an overwhelming landscape and in the bleak history it imposes.

Long is a sensitive writer and, in a phrase that here and there astonishes, more than that. He is with his characters, never above them, and he finds as much redemption on their behalf as he can.

Each story begins with lucid physical detail, a flash of distinctness between person and surroundings. A girl ice skates--"In love with nothing else just then, she loved the sensation of skating, the swift cuts, the sweat like a cool metal comb delving into her hair"--another waits at a shabby street corner for her boyfriend's football-team bus; a restless woman gets into her car and drives all night over the mountains to see her brother in Seattle.

These are illusory starts; each story will drain away a bright possibility and leave, at best, a bare one.

In "Cooperstown," a former baseball pitcher visits a lakeside boatyard to apologize to a batter whose career fell apart after the pitcher had bean-balled him. He finds that the man has rebuilt his life; his own, on the other hand, has fallen apart.

He takes a boat out, passing over the remains of a village flooded when a dam created the lake. He reflects, more or less, that time has repaired the damage and that there is plenty of afternoon left for his boating.

The old pitcher's consolation is real but minimal, a mere pause in a decline.

In "Lightning," a less-favored son comes home to take care of his failing parents on their ranch after his older, favored brother has abandoned them. Drifting, he has now found roots; but the author makes it clear--not obviously but with subtly accumulating detail--that the roots go down in thin and unrewarding soil.

Even in a story that ends with a more or less unambiguous triumph--a small-town political reformer gets his candidate elected against the odds--there is a sense that the overcome odds have exacted a desolate price.

As with the sunken village in "Cooperstown," a number of the stories mar their sensitive placement of figures in landscape and time with excessive arrangement. Long has a weakness for tidy endings and symbols.

In the title story, a prickly duo--sister and sister-in-law--live in a fine house built by the sister's patriarchal father. Their lives are shadowed and cramped by the past; the sister cuts down six big spruces that darken the windows and choke the septic system. Light enters their lives in a nicely ironic fashion. But those six symbolic spruces burden the story almost as much as they do the house.

So do the tulip bulbs in "Real Estate," though more lightly and only at the end of a complex and engaging story. With wit, compassion and a touch of irony it tells of the affair between Rosemary, a single mother who works at the local restaurant, and Gil, the owner. He is a tense, weak man, stressed out by his demanding partner and his fiancee. Part humiliated--all the more because Gil rents her a house at bargain rates--and part avid, Rosemary makes no demands and he is comically grateful. "It's good how you're being," he fatuously thanks her.

Eventually the fiancee gets hold of the house, Gil doesn't intervene and Rosemary will have to leave. It is not a defeat; with one sour, adolescent remark--one of Long's best moments--Rosemary's daughter shows her that she is, in fact, free.

Departing, Rosemary wonders whether the tulips she had planted will be all right. "Anything is possible," she decides. The author, though, would have done better to cut them.

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