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THE HILL BACHELORS By William Trevor; Viking: 246 pp., $23.95

THE VISITOR By Maeve Brennan; Counterpoint: 92 pp., $16.95

THE BEAST GOD FORGOT TO INVENT Stories By Jim Harrison; Atlantic Monthly Press: 228 pp., $24

VIRGINIA WOOLF By Nigel Nicholson; Viking: 194 pp., $20

October 08, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE HILL BACHELORS By William Trevor; Viking: 246 pp., $23.95

In William Trevor's hands, readers often feel as if they have wandered up the lane and are standing at the kitchen door of a house for several minutes before anyone knows they are there. In that time, an argument or a revealing conversation takes place between the occupants, and the neglected eavesdropper, the uninvited guest, is given an intimate view into the lives of strangers. At the end of each story, Trevor leads us back down the lane to the main road. In a story collection, this effect produces a variety of feelings: confusion, as in "Three People," in which it takes a while to figure out who died and how and who is guilty and why; empathy, as in "Of the Cloth," in which the essence is the balance of power between the Catholic and Protestant churches in Ireland; relief, as in "The Mourning," in which young Liam Pat does not plant the bomb he is asked to plant; and helplessness, as in "The Hill Bachelors," in which Paulie is sucked back into the life that destiny insists upon for him. Perhaps helplessness, in this and other books, is the feeling Trevor best draws from his readers. We are, after all, only eavesdroppers, only watchers.

THE VISITOR By Maeve Brennan; Counterpoint: 92 pp., $16.95

"Now in the city there are two worlds," the suddenly talkative narrator sidles up to tell us toward the end of "The Visitor," a novella that Maeve Brennan wrote in the 1940s, only recently discovered in university archives and offered here in all its sparkling brevity. "One world has walls around it, and one world has people around it." Something shatters at this point in Brennan's fragile novella. Perhaps it is the main character, Anastasia, 22, back in her grandmother's house in Dublin after her mother, with whom she lived for six years in Paris, has died. Certainly from the crystalline point at which Anastasia's grandmother announces that Anastasia, so quiet, so meek, may no longer stay with her, the girl goes quietly mad. But I think this interruption reveals a deeper wrinkle in the shared consciousness of author and character, and readers of Brennan, longtime New Yorker writer who died in 1993 at 76, will be interested to see it. It is a hiccup, a sob from the author, a small escaping cry of loneliness. It is about cities and parents and homelessness and homesickness all at once. It magnifies Brennan's entire, considerable oeuvre.

THE BEAST GOD FORGOT TO INVENT Stories By Jim Harrison; Atlantic Monthly Press: 228 pp., $24

It takes a little while to cozy up to Jim Harrison's books, which is probably just fine with Harrison, who certainly has no use for coziness. In the last few decades, Harrison has flummoxed political correctness, among other tenets, with weeping hunters and nasty Indians and feminist nymphos. Just when you think you know where he is going, he slaps your hand. Nowhere is this technique more violently apparent than the first of these three novellas, "The Beast God Forgot to Invent," in which a 67-year-old man living in the woods is periodically called upon to track down his friend Joe (the bear-man who lost something critical upstairs in an accident) by one of Joe's sexy girlfriends. In "Westward Ho," an Indian, Brown Dog (B.D.), on the lam finds himself in L.A. working as a chauffeur for a screenwriter (a juxtaposition of personalities that are not as different as you might think). The third novella, "I Forgot to Go to Spain," provides yet another fistula into the mind of an alpha male sporting a nine-day marriage. Interesting country. Good to be home.

VIRGINIA WOOLF By Nigel Nicholson; Viking: 194 pp., $20

It has proven almost impossible, since her suicide on March 28, 1941, for biographers to gain a unanimous view of Virginia Woolf; her creative or her destructive motivations, the sources of her madness, the sincerity of her feminism all have been open to debates that have framed several generations of literary education. Nigel Nicholson, son of Woolf's close friend Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, is brave to weigh in. As a descendant of Bloomsbury, Nicholson brings fresh anecdotes, reinterprets well-known quotes, and trains our eyes on sources that may have been known but not given sufficient importance. All this is tasty carrion for hungry vultures. Nicholson's take on Virginia is punctuated by her mental breakdowns. He repeats his own well-known (somewhat hair-splitting, Clintonian) disagreement with biographers who claim that early incest in Virginia's family warped Virginia (he does not believe actual rape occurred and therefore these memories were less traumatic than biographers infer). His view of Virginia Woolf, in the end, is still a child's. His neck cranes looking up at her. It stiffens the prose.

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