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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 25, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

HOW TO GET HOME by Bret Lott (John F. Blair: $18.95, 201 pp.). Bret Lott does the Raymond Carver thing pretty well in this collection of 16 short stories and a novella. He writes about people whose lives, like Lott's prose, are pared to the bone. Even the more affluent among them are harried by lost jobs, divorce, illness and fears for their children. Others are working-class people who attend open houses in neighborhoods where they can't hope to buy, who strain their budget--and their marriage--during a heat wave by trying to stay in a motel with a pool. In his terser stories, Lott doles out his words like wrinkled dollar bills. The movements of his characters' hands and feet sometimes tell us more than their conversation does; little things--a phone call at dawn, a dead dog, a pink slip on the boss' desk, a splinter of a liquor glass on the kitchen floor--signal major upheavals.

Lott, a Los Angeles native who lives in Charleston, S.C., does even better, however, at a different kind of story: longer, fuller, with a style capable of lyricism. In the novella, "After Leston," Jewel Hilburn, the protagonist of his novel "Jewel," returns, having moved from Mississippi to California to get better treatment for her retarded daughter. She succeeds in this, but she also has to recognize that the move helped bring on her husband's death.

The most striking tale, "War Story"--in which a former Navy cook recalls the battle of Midway--has a domestic theme, like Lott's other stories. The ex-sailor binds his family to him with what he reveals and alienates them with what he leaves out. What's different here is the intensity of Lott's writing--burnished images of sea and sky and sinking ships--which demonstrates that such alienation is inevitable. Some experience is just too big and wild to be domesticated, no matter how we try.

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