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Book Review

Edgy and Twisted Coming-of-Age Stories, Laced With Irony

THE BRUTAL LANGUAGE OF LOVE By Alicia Erian; Villard; 210 pages; $21.95


Fiction debuts often take the shape of coming-of-age stories so predictable you can sleepwalk your way through the plots: a young protagonist grows up in a locale not unlike the author's where self-discovery occurs and important lessons are learned. In the publishing industry, this is called "writing what you know."

One would hope that newcomer and Syracuse native Alicia Erian isn't writing exactly from her own experience in "The Brutal Language of Love," for these nine stories, though they might fit within the coming-of-age category, are possessed of a jolting honesty that is neither formulaic nor trite. With a biting humor and sometimes bitter irony, "The Brutal Language of Love" stakes out territory all too familiar to some Gen Y-ers and their older sisters--the blunders and stumblings of sexually eager, albeit naive, young women.

Seven of the nine stories cover just this territory, with varying results. One of the more memorable, "Alcatraz," is a strangely affecting tale of an obese, lonely middle-schooler named Roz who learns that trading sexual favors for kindness from Jennings, one of the cruel boys she bests in a spelling bee, is no guarantee of happiness--or immunity from future abuse. But as anguished as her yearnings for this hurtful hunk may be, she is wise enough to realize that Jennings' professions of love are disguising something else: "People say all kinds of crazy things to make others believe their lives weren't as bad as they really were, and for the most part it seemed to work."

Another story that explores these themes is "Bikini," a creepy tale of a Syracuse college student in the early '60s who finds herself enraptured by a handsome foreign student whose possessive and conservative ways have near-tragic consequences.

In a third, "Almonds and Cherries," a "nontraditional" film student explores her sexuality with a lingerie saleswoman, where the student delights to discover "the generosity aspect of sex had ceased to feel like work."

In these stories, as well as those that explore dysfunctional families, Erian displays a solid talent for creating vivid images or dropping the revealing aside that turns one's expectations upside-down. That she can consistently delight the reader with her skills and at the same time explore such topics as sexual harassment on college campuses, rape, affairs with one's in-laws and more, is one of the enduring pleasures of this collection. For despite the difficult issues embedded in these tales, Erian is no social commentator, just a writer with a well-honed ability to tell stories so visual they relate as much to the idiosyncratic, independent films of Todd Solondz or Neil LaBute as they do to the stories of Aimee Bender or Pam Houston.

The comparison to film is not a spurious one. The protagonist of "Almond and Cherries" makes a film of her bra shopping experience, and the title story tells the tale of Penny, a movie theater projectionist stuck in a dead-end job and an equally futile relationship, who agrees to be filmed as part of a university student's documentary. Penny's revelations to the young filmmaker leave her vulnerable and cynical about the meaning of love in her life: "The reality was, you only knew you were loved if you were left and returned to, if you were ignored and craved. . . . Love announced itself with a sting, not a pat . . . was never clean, never quiet, never polite."

The same can be said for the collection "The Brutal Language of Love," which packs a sexually charged, bracing wallop uniquely its own.

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