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Tales of Self-Loathing and Opened Wounds : THE COUNTRY AHEAD OF US, THE COUNTRY BEHIND. Stories by David Guterson, Vintage, $10, 162 pages

February 16, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As you know, and as they know, people with soft voices force you to pay attention to them. This is not the same as catching more flies with honey. David Guterson writes with a soft voice and kills his flies with vinegar. You have to watch him like a hawk.

For every smooth confession, every midlife revelation, every contrite new leaf turned, there's a dead body, someone with a real heart bleeding unattended in an attic bedroom. This is true of "Snow Falling on Cedars," Guterson's best-selling, heart-stopping, human-condition illuminating novel of racial hatred stretched through generations on a small Northwest island, and it is true of these stories.

The characters suffer an abundance of burdens: sexual guilt, father-son guilt, brother guilt, alienation from peers, Vietnam, parent hatred, deep fear, friend-who-lost-his footing-on-life guilt and why-can't-I-love-enough guilt. (And did I say sexual guilt?)

The main characters are all boys, some posing as men, all painfully aware of the charade and powerless to grow up. You feel as though you might be able to help these characters, which is the same trap their wives, families and friends fall into. But here's the vinegar: They are stuck, stubborn, comfortable with their failures, wanting dangerously to be different.

In "Angels in the Snow," the narrator, who proudly tells his wife and friends that his "neck's made out of rubber," tells a story about being 16 and almost having a prostitute. As if the tale will absolve him from what his wife calls his "sleazy" failure to admit that he looks at everything that moves and is driven by sex-without-heart. The briefly mentioned end of their marriage cements him in sleaze for the rest of his adult life.

In "Day of the Moonwalk," a boy responsible for his brother's inability to follow a highly promising path in sports never takes responsibility. None of these boys, in fact, ever takes responsibility. A truly hateful, self-confessed (and proud of it) self-loather in "Aliens" fails utterly to read the feelings of even his one close friend:

"I was thinking, as usual, about myself instead, coat or no coat--of course I was." Again, the "of course I was" leaves the most bitter taste.

"The Flower Garden" is my favorite of the group, perhaps because it's longer than the others. With so much whispering and pointing to the heart of these stories' hearts, Guterson requires more time and space for a hopeful reader to follow all clues to the final, hope-dashing end.

The result is a more finely formed main character and more time spent alongside that character, pressed between the rock and the hard place of "I shoulds" and "I wants."

But "Flower Garden" is the final story, and by now you are wary. When Guterson richly describes his 17-year-old character's paper route ("Wherever I went, timeworn and meditative old men stood by and watched me behind the glitter of sprinklers"), you are already looking for clues. You don't trust the kid, you don't trust the old men, and the paper route seems menacing.

Sure enough, the boy who loves baseball falls in love with a young woman and is repulsed once he is driven to declare it. He's a boy who doesn't want to grow up and forsake baseball and fall in love. It is, finally, a more satisfying story because this boy later feels regret, remorse, the key to change:

"I have felt in my heart that same widening aloneness that buried me then: the loneliness that boys feel who are forever afraid of death and becoming men." But Guterson, like the best authors, isn't out to satisfy us--we can watch TV and eat frozen Snickers bars for that. He's out to make us drink vinegar.

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