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An Antidote for Women Who Get Bitten : LOVERBOYS. By Ana Castillo (W. W. Norton: $21, 224 pp.)

August 25, 1996|Sandra Scofield | Sandra Scofield's most recent novel is "A Chance to See Egypt" (HarperCollins)

The most astonishing tale in Ana Castillo's new book, a collection of stories, is the last, called "By Way of Acknowledgment." An itinerant writer, "scattered by the wind" that surrounds her fate, suddenly gets money out of nowhere, suddenly gets a contract for a book she hasn't yet written. She races back to "Chi-town," where there are her comadres, with their faith and passion and generosity, with their space and discipline and vodka, to make it all happen. Her talent and luck and ethnicity pay off. She finishes her stories, calls the book "Loverboys." Of course, this story is true.

I'm not from Chicago, and I'm not Latina and I don't have so many friends, but I do know what a loverboy is. He thinks he's hot, and he thinks you're hot but he's full of promises he can't keep. "His eyes are succulent as oranges and very black. . . ." He slips in and out of your bed and your life and he's a moving target for your anger and sarcasm but also for your once-in-awhile nostalgic sigh. He makes you think of your papi, who jerked your mother around for years and scorned your independent spirit, but then bragged about your books. He calls you from pay phones . . . .

And damned if you can keep from talking about him and telling him how much better women are, how much better you are. He's a thorn in your side, he can go straight to hell, but he is something to write about.

"Loverboys" is an antidote for women who still let themselves get bitten. It's a plate full of tight little taquitos to warm up on the morning after. It's exuberant, gutsy, arrogant (dare you to mind!), passionate. It's in your face.

"Loverboys" is all about attitude.

The brightest thread running through the 22 stories doesn't actually have to do with men in any "classic" sense. Some women love them, but like as not the women are bisexual and glad of it, and the men were lapses of good sense.

In the title story, the narrator Carmen talks the way someone might who just met you in a bar or on a bus who thinks she'll like you. She tells you about her business--a metaphysical bookstore--and her drinking and her history with Rosie. This story, like most of them, is short on specifics and event. It's more a circle, a kind of Latin Grace Paley story, with ideas linking the way children's notions do--strung together loosely but adding up to an effect.

Besides, Carmen shows up again in the end, in the longest, funniest of the tales, "La Miss Rose," in which she and her pal Stormy take up with a West Indian gypsy witch and rollick their way to good luck.

In between, there are pieces so slight they are more sliced than shaped, with the feel of tossed-off ideas. There's a lot of talk about writing and writers, with a running subtext of resentment against those who don't pass the narrator's political litmus tests.

In "Vatolandia," one big-hipped mama calls out her anger-turned-humor in put-downs of arrogant, rude, strutting, snakeskin-boot-wearing "sad-butt bag boys." In "A Lifetime," there's actually tenderness when a woman visits her dying ex in the hospital. And pathos in "Foreign Market," when an immigrant girl makes too much of an Arab fruit vendor's one night of romance. I liked "Subtitles" next best after "La Miss Rose." "I have lived my life in a foreign film," the narrator begins. It's an original story, and it stands out for its use of images.

Some pieces are too little or too much of the same ol' same ol'. "Who Was Juana Gallo" is like a shaggy dog story, despite its reference to the Mexican Revolution. "Again, Like Before" says it all in the title. "A Kiss Errant" reads like juvenilia.

In short, this is an uneven, often self-indulgent collection, with its lusty touches and its good moments of insight and humor. It's short on character and story. (I don't think "plot" would even be an appropriate word to use for evaluation here.) There is an appealing sense of Bohemia; many women will love the earthy, gutsy voice. But all in all, despite Ana Castillo's good luck, she'd have done better to take more time and give us a few more real stories. She's a writer with a great range. I know she can do it.

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