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BOOK REVIEW / Fiction

Hidden Corners in the Lives of Women

DIRT ANGEL by Jeanne Wilmot, Ontario Review Press, $18.95, 150 pages

January 15, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is a kind of prose that begins in poetry, or at least in the musical spectrum of language. James Joyce and Malcolm Lowry were two of this century's greatest practitioners of this hybrid art. James Baldwin was another. There is something of the ambition of each of these men, with a dab of the poet Anne Sexton thrown in, in the mixture that is Jeanne Wilmot's first book of stories, "Dirt Angel."

And at times, "Dirt Angel" feels more like a collection of New York tone poems than of stories, with their elegant adjectives and inverted syntax.

"She'd been wrapped in blue velvet, Mr. Carver's little sister, Yvonne, when they found her," begins one story called "Madonna."

"She died on vacation. My mother did," is the opening of "Survivors."

The pedal tone is death, and it is no coincidence that life in these stories is also inverted. The title story traces the final few days of a pregnant Southern debutante in the no man's land of an abandoned subway line in East Harlem. Mr. Carver's little sister, Yvonne, is dead before "Madonna" begins. In fact, it is only in the last story of the collection, "The Company We Keep," that all four of the characters cross the final period with their lives intact.

But death is not Wilmot's subject. It is only a hot breath that keeps her women on the move. And fascinating women they are. Women in transition, women born in the islands, women born in the projects, women of indeterminate race, with tanned skin and Semitic noses, but always women traveling between uptown and downtown, between despair and the middle class.

There is Andra in "Spade in the Minstrel Mask," the wife of Page Cook, the rap star, racing down from Harlem to Radio City to save her junkie sister-in-law from a fatal last fix. There is Jane in "The Tryst," who leaves her Federalhouse on 4th Street for the erotic and exotic pleasures of the uptown clubs.

Wilmot paints these women with language that is often breathtaking, while balancing them on the thinnest of plots. The danger is that this high-wire act requires expert precision.

In one story, Wilmot carelessly has a character putting a tape into a CD player. And while that might be a small misstep, it is not unique.

Similarly, Wilmot's feeling for language is sometimes exquisite and sometimes so needlessly elegant that mood and attention and even meaning are suffocated beneath the frills. One of her women lives in "some place where music has replaced the inadequacy of words." Yet Lowry had to craft the beginning of "Under the Volcano" before he earned the right to compose the symphony of the final pages, and even Joyce had to eat his broccoli before he was allowed "Finnegans Wake."

But even when Wilmot stumbles, the result is not necessarily unsuccessful. There's a strong feeling of wannabe to Wilmot's women that dangles off their participles like a too-large earring or the wrong choice of scent, and it is utterly, destructively compelling.

These women give off sparks in their mad rush from here to there that illuminate hidden corners of white New York and black New York. If one listens, one can hear the writer in these corners, whispering "but for the grace of God," with every uptown glance. And if the breath falters, it's because of her urgency to try the hard stuff, apoetry and all.

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