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Book Review

Various Ends of Innocence Dissected With a Clean, Spare Style

BARGAINS IN THE REAL WORLD Thirteen Stories by Elizabeth Cox; Random House $19.95, 272 pages

March 06, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Elizabeth Cox has a way of working both sides of the street in this collection of 13 short stories, four of them previously unpublished. She writes of the old and the contemporary South, of comic and violent events, of the power of innocence and the weakness of betrayal. Her specialty is the sexual molestation in which the victim at least partly collaborates.

In "Biology," for instance, the 15-year-old narrator, Evie, is seduced by a traveling evangelist who looks like actor Jeff Chandler. She seems helpless against his wiles, believing his line that everything they do in "the lap of God" is blessed. But she has only to declare her love and suggest that he quit the tent-show circuit and settle in town to scare him away. "You should not waste yourself on the likes of me," he mutters. Proof that "he did not love me" after all strengthens rather than devastates her.

In "Saved," 13-year-old Josie Wire, fired by faith at a Billy Graham crusade, tries to convert the worst sinners she can think of--the denizens of a local bar, the Wagon Wheel, and in particular a drunken ex-teacher who calls himself Samuel Beckett. Again, the girl seems hopelessly naive, but in the end, both characters get what they want. Josie experiences her first sexual thrill; Sam, unlike his namesake, finds a basis for hope.

In "The Last Fourth Grade," a popular teacher kills her husband when he can't stop fondling her pupils. Decades later, one of the ex-pupils visits her in prison and is shocked that the teacher also blames them for leading him on with "your flirty ways--your little-girlness." She admits that she left her husband alone with them in the hope that "if Harry got caught--then he would stop." And the ex-pupil recalls being jealous of another little girl the husband liked more.

Cox has written three novels: "Familiar Ground," "The Ragged Way People Fall out of Love" and "Night Talk." She has a spare, clean style that, in some of the shorter stories here, seems only slight. The longer ones, though, provide room for her plots to move through time and sprout in unexpected directions, as if they were mini-novels.

"O Tannenbaum!," for instance, starts on a dark note: A boy whose parents are divorcing has to spend Christmas with his uncle's family. They take him to the woods to observe an annual custom: They "cut" their tree by lopping the tip off an 80-foot fir with rifle bullets. It hangs up in the branches halfway down, so they go to the nearest house to borrow a ladder. They are cursed at by a "man with a beer belly and a shirt that did not quite cover his stomach," whose much younger wife is "very pregnant."

Yet this, as the title suggests, is a Christmas story. Before it's over, the boy will get his first kiss, and the mountaineer, whom we had tabbed for a squalid role in "Deliverance," will not only deliver the baby himself but also prove capable of saying of his wife: "She's mad because I've been through this before and this is her first time. She wants it to be the first time for me too. She thinks it's not special to me. She doesn't know that every time is a first."

In the O. Henry Award-winning "The Third of July," a woman married 30 years decides to leave her husband for reasons that--we aren't sure--are either trivial or too profound for words. She encounters a traffic accident on a rural road: bleeding bodies everywhere, and no one else around, until a farmer comes across a field. "Once, for three weeks, Nadine and Emmett had been sweethearts. Nadine could not imagine that now." They do what they can to help, and then she returns home--again, leaving us to intuit the reasons why.

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