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The Great Helmsman : THE COLLECTED STORIES OF EVAN S. CONNELL, By Evan S. Connell (Counterpoint Publishing: $30; 675 pp.)

February 11, 1996|Ralph B. Sipper | Ralph B. Sipper is a Santa Barbara rare-book dealer and book critic

Charting the artistic course of Evan S. Connell's stories some four decades after they first began to ply their quiet ways through unheralded publication turns out to be the kind of happy navigation that leads not to new but previously discovered territory. Assured helmsman that he is, Connell has always known where to take us and how to get us there--with "there" being the deeper reaches of the mind and heart.

It is the voyage itself that interests Connell. Destination is of secondary concern to this careful tracker of the steps his fictional people choose or cannot help but take. Coming to the end of one of these stories, the reader may well have anticipated its climactic moment. I say anticipated because revelation of character overrides what happens in a Connell work. Page-turners need not apply to this volume.

In "Mademoiselle From Kansas City," which was written in 1960, a young woman who has fled a humdrum middle-class existence finds not the liberating new life in New York she blindly sought but defeat and the decay of what little insight she once might have possessed. Accepting money from the stranger with whom she is about to go to bed, she "reached back, unzipping her dress and pulling it over her head before he could try to help. She did not want his hands to touch her clothing." What matters most to this confused being is to keep her social exterior unruffled. Denying the fall into prostitution, she retreats into a sentimental reverie of childhood, impervious to the thrashings of the anonymous male who is consummating his physical need.

"Mrs. Proctor Bemis" might well be the mademoiselle 35 years hence, had that unfortunate young woman stayed home. As the title character in this new story rails against welfare cheats and loitering black men to her inattentive husband, the author neutrally identifies the self-interested values of this pillar of Midwestern society. What we have here is Connell's critically celebrated Mrs. Bridge gone Gingrich and company, with a devastating critique of supply side economics thrown in. As Mrs. Bemis' frustration over what the world has come to builds, she too lapses into a daydream of bygone idyllic times. In each story Connell has, with the sparest of details, indelibly outlined how ignorance can lead to death in life. He is among those rare male authors (Larry McMurtry is another) who can transport themselves into the innermost recesses of female ideation.

Stories such as these showcase the author's knowing worldliness. Rejecting the kind of condescending sophistication that is often mistaken for heightened intelligence, he placidly dramatizes the awful consequences of careless thought. In "St. Augustine's Pigeon," the widowed, sexually-hungry Muhlbach succumbs to a night on the town that turns disastrous. Too late he finds that the chaos surrounding him is the consequence of his own faulted actions.

In "A Cottage Near Twin Falls," novelist William Koerner attends a cocktail party. There he is waylaid by fellow guests who trot out just about every cliche ever directed at a writer (a series of inanities wickedly and hilariously cataloged by Connell) leading Koerner to drink excessively.

In "the Walls of Avila," the boyhood friends of a rootless traveler reunite with him a decade after he has rejected their conventional lifestyle. As the traveler describes unusual things he has seen, the friends experience awe, envy and, finally, sadness. They now understand that they will never encounter mysterious and beautiful vistas such as these because they have settled for ordered lives.

Going through these more than 50 stories, half of which have previously not appeared in book form, one discerns recurring presence. Urban settings often prove more barbarous than primitive ones. Proven truths are passed over by characters who deny the validity of historical experience. Closed-in beings with subdued passions ever-ready to explode are ubiquitous visitors to these pages. An overhanging threat of imminent danger or loss quietly encroaches upon the civilized borders of this storyteller's creations.

But more than the echoing of moods takes place within these pages. There is a highly charged personal sensitivity present that serves to unify the stories, which are not presented in the chronological order they were composed. Whether early or late in career, Connell has largely been constant in the ways his characters respond to the various situations in which he has set them.

It is chancy--indeed sometimes shallow--to mistake an author's fictional representations for his real self. In this case, though, one dares to venture that the man behind this art--and art it is--formed his strong convictions early in life. This is a man whose taste for humor runs to the bittersweet, whose reticence is a way to engage those less stoic than he, a man who approaches intimacy with wariness.

As with Jorge Luis Borges' classic "patient labyrinth," the sum of Evan Connell's work has turned out to be unique--like the very lines of his own face.

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