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May 23, 1999|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE WAY PEOPLE RUN; By Christopher Tilghman; (Random House: 210 pp., $21.95)

It's a pleasure to read fiction that reveals the interior life of a man. These stories, set in the Chesapeake Bay and the West, deal a particular hand of cards: primogeniture, cuckoldry, land and duty. As the men in these stories play their cards, they are betting with particular chips: marriage, money, career, children. "Perhaps even this second," thinks a wealthy, elderly, lonely drunken man, "he would have to make a decision; his life was in his hands like a folded shadow, he was terrified of the dark." All of the men in the bull's eyes of these stories are tottering on a brink; they are afraid. Often, they fall, and for that, Christopher Tilghman has placed nets ("mercies") beneath them. There's a privacy in these stories--something elusive about the epiphanies that I also, perhaps erroneously, associate with men. In "The Way People Run," a story about a man passing through the unfamiliar town his people come from, wobbling away from a failing marriage, Tilghman captures the lack of belonging a man can feel, in the home, at work, with his children, with his family. It's heartbreaking, and it makes you want to run, too, but from them or toward them, who knows?

TOUGH, TOUGH TOYS FOR TOUGH, TOUGH BOYS; By Will Self; (Grove: 244 pp., $23)

Will Self is the literary opposite of Tilghman, an angry imp whose characters couldn't care less what any of us think of them. One reads him to be made uncomfortable. "Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys" is a phrase from an early ad for Tonka Toys. In the story of the same name, a very messed-up guy picks up a hitchhiker and expects at the end of a long drive, after some drugs and some favors, that the hitchhiker will ask his name. He thinks he has understood the hitchhiker: "the outhouses of unfeeling and evasion; the vestibules of need and recrimination; the garages of wounding and abuse. . . ." But no.

Toys in these stories include crack, insects and, in a very funny story, "Caring, Sharing," creatures called emotos that travel with their enlightened mature humans--huge, externalized children within. Most of the stories take place in the world of bankers and crack heads, with very little in between. "The Nonce Prize," about crack and sexual abuse of children and violence of every kind, is not for the weak of stomach. There is no redemption, and it is not a funny story. Welcome to Self Hood.

ADULTERY: And Other Diversions; By Tim Parks; (Arcade: 192 pp., $21.95)

What a delight to see how Tim Parks gets better over the years. Rather than becoming the travel-writing dilettante that would ensure good food on his table, he has pursued a contemplative, questioning mix of fiction, nonfiction and old-fashioned essay writing (like "Adultery"), intertwined with translations of such writers as Roberto Calasso and Italo Calvino. He is one of those rare writers who really does his best work when he lets his mind go wandering: I like these essays on adultery and translation and fidelity and advice to friends and raising children more even than his novels (most recently "Europa") or his stories about living in Italy ("Italian Neighbors" and "An Italian Education"). Compared to the essays, the fiction seems a bit disingenuous, as though he were pretending to know the answers to the questions he poses so freely and tries to answer. I think that Parks, particularly in the essays concerning marriage, understands the humor and terror of modern life. ("Could it be that there is a sort of pact between conventional morality and the information culture?") He thinks out loud, and it is very physical. He throws his arms around a subject and squeezes it. I find his revelations comforting but, more important, I find his joy in arriving upon them contagious.

THE THINGS WE USED TO SAY; By Natalia Ginzburg; Translated from the Italian by Judith Woolf; (Arcade: 210 pp., $23.95)

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