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Book Review

A Fierce Portrait of Northeast Painted by Troubled Characters

The Bostons,\o7 By Carolyn Cooke\f7 , A Mariner original/Houghton Mifflin 224 pages, $12 paper

July 05, 2001|BRET ISRAEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dying and empty Boston aesthete takes his halfhearted girlfriend on a trip to Europe, which she barely appreciates. Bob Darling had picked up the girl on the Boston subway and grows to detest her and how little she appreciates his good taste. "She had never heard of Pere-Lachaise. She knew only vaguely of Jim Morrison. Her ignorance was vast, ecumenical." He rues her and all his days, lusting only for one good meal on a fast French train. And she spoils even that.

A mourning party gathers at a bungalow court in the Maine woods to remember a long-gone daredevil of a young man. Buck has become a mythic figure, bringing out "the loyalty people felt toward the wild things of Black Island: the sour berries on the barrens, the lobsters crawling in the cold ocean, the granite cliffs that cracked boats like eggshells and dropped yellow-slickered fishermen into the water." Present are the two mothers of his children and his disturbed dad. A bad dog nips at a child. After many drinks and bad food, the mother runs off to collect her son's ashes.

At the insistence of his frail wife, an old man packs his paintings and his journals, preparing for a nursing home. He reads the letters of his long-departed troubled daughter; attends a funeral, forgetting exactly who has died; fingers his old pipe, longing for old pleasures. A dish of ice cream sets off a reverie: "He wanted to live in the same way he wanted to remain at table, not because he was starving, or craved a sweet at the end, but because he took pleasure in living."

Stories Grab, Gather Force

Weird, slightly cracked, yet chiseled and often luminous, Carolyn Cooke's debut collection of short fiction grabs you right away, gathers force and leaves little holes in your heart.

These are spare, linked stories of ruin, broken families and angled loneliness. The characters are boozy and often in real pain. Many center on odd relationships, of in-laws and former loves, of chilly husbands and wives and children estranged from parents. They ring with gunshots, failed suicides and cracked bones. To use one of the author's favorite words, they are pungent.

Most are set either in Boston amid "the grays and browns and bricks of the little Puritan city" or rural Maine. There are glimpses of the old statehouse, whiffs of drab, strait-laced New England, references to Sargeant and the classic authors. Some of the rural stories are about poor woodland folks, ice fishermen and house builders, smoldering with rage at circumstances and at "the Bostons," as they call the city folk who on their summer jaunts wreak havoc on their land and their lives.

Cooke, a former writer for Penthouse who was raised in New England and now lives in Northern California, is interested in some subjects that lie outside the range of much precious, ego-besotted contemporary fiction. She writes with brutal sympathy for old people. Some of her stories are about the young. Like a latter-day Grace Paley, she addresses--of all amazing unspoken American things--class issues. Most of all, she has a strong woman's eye and touch; her characters cook and feel twangs of desire; they despise and yet are drawn to relatives; they laugh in the teeth of hardship and tragedy.

Claustrophobic, Bleak

Perhaps her fictions are a little claustrophobic; they are shot full of bleak mordancy. Several of the nine stories feel underworked: "The Dirt Eaters" wants to be a riotous look at the family gathering of the unaccomplished, but it finally grates; "Black Book" is a sad pointillistic account of a joyless 50th-birthday party with a group of gay women in Venice Beach, but it feels slightly forced and underworked. Cooke's voice can be smart, feeling and original, but narrow; all nine of these stories have a slightly familiar rhythm and sense of pacing and probably should be read in small doses.

The best stories--"Bob Darling," "The Bostons," "Twa Corbies" and "Girl of Their Dreams"--are fresh and fierce. Slowly, they create an unlikely and usually unsettling situation. They dart forward and backward in time and insist on an attentive reader, but they are rarely dense or strange merely for their own sake.

Cooke is an interesting writer who is somehow able to use simply etched prose to create an effect of thickness; as in much of the best short fiction, one can read deeply into what she leaves unsaid. She can be sarcastic, even harsh, but is never mean. Her best writing nails a pinched, painful world, one where good intentions, while clearly evident, hardly suffice, and where love exists, but a long time ago.

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