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Secrets Accidentally Spilled : FICTION : WOMEN IN THEIR BEDS: New and Selected Stories, By Gina Berriault (Counterpoint: $25; 363 pp.)

May 26, 1996|Lynell George | Lynell George is a Times staff writer

Part trance, part cinema, Gina Berriault writes about the beds we make and are forced to lie in. She explores the choices we squeeze ourselves into, like shoes much too tight; the choices forced upon us by ill-timing or unfortunate station.

The homeless "sidewalk sleeper" of "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am" shuffling into a San Francisco library with scraps of poetry stuffed into his pockets, demands an explanation. At least someone who can shed light on the enigma of himself. He locks his gaze on a librarian, Alberto Perera, who is peppered with affectation, but full of book-learned philosophy.

Perera, standing at the dawn of retirement--without much self-confrontation--is tidying up his already tidy life. "If you can't, halloo the sun, if you can't go chirpity chirp to the moon . . . what're you doing around here anyway?" demands the homeless man, younger but standing at the twilight of his life.

There is the lonely existence of an anonymous 63-year-old woman, of "The Diary of K.W." who makes her bed beneath the shared ceiling and floor of the young man with whom she's grown mortally obsessed. Instead of filling a psychiatrist's ear, she crowds the pages of a journal. Her life, like crumbling plaster, rains down on her with each of his heavy footsteps.

These lives in tumult are ostensibly western tales, not romantic elegy, but raw testimony from regions that border the Pacific. They are the terrain of extremes--physical as well as emotional--mysterious gray jagged coast robed in fog or the thirsty, sun-bleached deserts that defy anything to grow or prosper.

Berriault explores the roots set down amid the fault lines. She writes of families jolted by unexpected tremors of love and absence, of displaced people marooned on the peripheries.

Much of the body of "Women in Their Beds" was resurrected from now out-of-print North Point Press editions amid a sprinkling of newer work. Berriault, whose most famous work, "The Stone Boy," is also included in this volume, has achieved the dubious distinction of a writer's writer, praised to the heavens in literary circles, but who moves outside of that orbit incognito.

Her writing, imbued with a haunting resonance, is like a secret accidentally spilled. A poltergeist, she moves lives off foundations, so doors don't shut as cleanly or securely as before. They commence from the middle--after the deed's done, the truth spoken, the promise broken.

This is Berriault's power: poetically interpreting the vivid arc of raw emotion, articulating what hangs in that cramped balance--after revelation and before resolution. Although there are moments where the stories feel so finely tuned that the dialogue too closely matches the cadence of the narrative, she is the master of the poetic utterance of suggestion and what lies in the small space of secrets.

In "The Houses of the City," a little boy, some afternoons after school, shadows his cleaning-woman mother. Acutely aware of but too young to fully digest the meaning of the mother's coat and hat draped over a bedroom chair or the bared thigh of the man of the house, the boy accepts the hot chocolate and the conversation. But clues fuel the child's suspicions. He feels his borders threatened, his fear gains life as jealousy. "By such devout observance of her presence," plots the son, "he was proving to her that he was a more loving son than the young man could ever be, no matter how hard the other tried."

Children, in Berriault's vignettes, often trip unexpectedly into the dimly lit living rooms of adult worlds--on the jagged edges of arguments and accusations. The extramarital affairs of parents become the burdensome affairs of the children. It is a theme that occupies Berriault. In the "Woman In the Rose Colored Dress" the child overhears the sketchy details of a past planned rendezvous between her father and his lover. In "The Sublime Child," the daughter of a dead mistress and the adulterer fill the space of loss for one another--until bounds are over-stepped. And a long-abandoned paramour at a party confronts the son of an old lover, fishing for her effect, her ultimate impact at the expense of the son and his pain in "The Mistress."

But here weakness isn't a mark of evil, it is a sign of humanity, a wound earned in the struggle toward self. It's the parents who break down under the eyes of their children or who fail them (as in "The Bystander" or "The Overcoat"), daughters who attempt to remove themselves from the fold of their families, the perceived curses of their blood ("Felis Catus," "Anna Lisa's Nose").

Ghosts, impostors, pariahs, Berriault's characters move like somnambulists through their lives. These are the beds, prompts her protagonist from the title story, "where you wished you weren't and the beds where you wished you were. . . ." Memory recalls the rote particulars, but Gina Berriault's great gift is summoning the pitch and roll of restlessness within which we lie in them.

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