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Papa's Shrine

PILGRIMS. By Elizabeth Gilbert . Houghton Mifflin: 210 pp., $22

September 21, 1997|D.T. MAX | D.T. Max is a contributing editor to the Paris Review

Among writers, fiction outranks nonfiction in prestige. Logically, the opposite probably ought to be true. Except for a handful of best-selling novelists, journalists generally have more readers than do fiction writers; journalists tend to make more money, and what they write is more likely to affect public policy. But this doesn't seem to matter. Fiction has a magic about it that seduces even the most hardened journalists.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the talented young author of the dozen stories in "Pilgrims," has made her reputation with her magazine nonfiction. But now she too has heeded the call to write fiction. A contributor to GQ, Gilbert writes about women in the land of men. Two of her recent pieces are in my personal pantheon: "Buckle Bunnies," a bawdy article about rodeo groupies that ran in Spin; and "The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon," a first-person account for GQ of an East Village bar where the owner trains her all-female bartending staff in abusing--and winning the love of--the male clientele.

With her first story collection, Gilbert proves herself to be a capable fiction writer. Many of her nonfiction strengths carry over: She draws her characters beautifully, and her sentences are sharp and bright. She has retained her gift for dialogue. But while I admired many of these stories, I didn't always take the kind of pleasure in them I'd hoped to. Perhaps it's because of their solemn, even sententious tone.

Gilbert's favorite theme is women attracted to the macho world but in covering this terrain, she bows too deeply before the shrine of Papa Hemingway and his disciple Cormac McCarthy. Consider the title story, with its fertile premise that Buck, a young cowboy, has a crush on Martha Knox, an alluring Eastern girl hired to work on his father's ranch. "She's not beautiful," Buck's father tells him, "but I think she knows how to sell it." At the story's climax, Buck and Martha sit before a campfire after leading a group of Sunday hunters on an elk shoot in the mountains. "Talk about a bunch of pilgrims," Martha comments. "These guys have never even been in a backyard."

She and Buck, of course, are on unfamiliar territory, as "Pilgrims" keeps hinting a bit too intently. Here's a key moment, narrated by Buck: "She handed me the bottle again, and this time I drank. We did not talk for a long time, but we finished off the bottle, and when the fire got low, Martha Knox put more wood on it. . . . In October up there it isn't easy to be warm and I would not pull away from that kind of heat too fast."

By contrast, "Elk Talk" is subtle. Jean, a woman living in a Wyoming cabin, finds her sanctuary violated one day by a visit from the Donaldsons, a family of city slickers who just moved in down the road. Lance Donaldson, a musician, shows her a homemade horn that imitates a male elk's mating calls and, to everyone's shock, his playful tooting brings a furious bull elk out of the woods to protect his territory. As with the stories of the superb Montana writer Rick Bass, "Elk Talk" captures how the wilderness serves as an echo bowl to our own nobility or shabbiness. Donaldson doesn't understand the majesty of nature or that acts have consequences.

Yet the middle stories in "Pilgrims" are hit or miss. "Tall Folks" recasts the "Coyote Ugly" article from GQ; the owner is now involved in a competition with a topless bar across the street. "The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)" never gets beyond being an experiment in limited third-person narrative. There's also the Cheever-like "The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick" about a suburbanite driven to violence when his pet rabbit disappears. "At the Bronx Terminal Vegetable Market" is the story of a beaten-down porter who wants to be the head of his Mafia-controlled union. This story strikes me as essentially journalism, the reported observations always more compelling than the characters.

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