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Graceful collages and mysterious pairings

The Stories of Alice Adams, Alice Adams, Alfred A. Knopf: 626 pp., $30

November 17, 2002|Michael Frank | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Three years after Alice Adams' death, 53 of her short stories have been brought together in one of those handsome, bulky volumes that inevitably occasion -- seem, even, to expect -- a reconsideration of a writer's relationship to a genre. The author of nearly a dozen novels, four previous collections of stories and a travel memoir, Adams was much celebrated for her short fiction: She was published regularly in The New Yorker; she appeared in 23 O. Henry Award collections and she received first prize six times; reviewers likened her, variously, to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor and Katherine Mansfield. It is with some anticipation, then, that a reader sits down with these 600-plus pages to see how this writer left her mark on the short story and, perhaps, how the short story left its mark on her.

"The Stories of Alice Adams" doesn't offer much helpful chaperonage. The jacket copy, in describing them as her "best," is the only indication that any standard or system of assessment has been applied to selecting the work. The book comes without an introduction. There is no explanation as to why the stories are ordered the way they are (though from internal references the principle seems to be chronological), and there is no sense of who is guiding the enterprise and therefore responsible for allowing this graceful, gifted writer to stand before her readers, so unmediated and, alas, so uneven.

Very few writers of short stories can survive having so much of their work brought together in this fashion. Even Chekhov, in the indispensable dozen-plus volumes of his short fiction in the old Constance Garnett translations, delivers his share of the clunker or the undeveloped sketch. There is something to be learned, however, from watching a writer like Chekhov grow into his full embrace of the story, but that is because Chekhov, in embracing the story, eventually transformed it, whereas Adams writes in pretty much the same mode at the end of this book as she does at the beginning.

This said -- this grumbled? -- there is much to enjoy and admire in the best of Adams' short fiction. Here is a writer who has a natural, almost innate, gentility, an ease of being with language, character, landscape, atmosphere and emotion that is both authentic and modest. If these are watercolor, as opposed to oil paint, terms, it is because Adams feels very much like a worker on paper, rather than one on canvas. She is not a great dramatist. She makes collages, assemblages of narrative, rather than building suspense, even psychological suspense. She is fond of the aside: the stand-alone paragraph or passage, the parenthetical remark or amplification that merely adds texture and nuance. Many of Adams' stories feel like sketches: They begin strong, move subtly and peter out by the end. There are not often large, or sometimes even all that measurable, shifts in her central characters, or their dynamics. Movement is slow, spotty, subtle -- as in life, or certain kinds of lives.

The stories tend to fall into two types: the reminiscence and the snapshot. "Winter Rain," which appears early in the book, is one of the reminiscences: The narrator looks back on a winter in Paris and very vividly renders her younger self, her leftist lover and her old, crisp, severe Gallic landlady. The story is a memory, formed and fixed, nothing more -- and it is enough.

"Greyhound People," one of Adams' best-known stories, belongs to the snapshot variety: Here is a picture, pattern, character, place: Its types are perfectly distilled: regular travelers on a bus route from Sacramento to San Francisco, and that is sufficient for the author. You come away from the story feeling that you have been taken somewhere -- not enlightened so much, not shaken up -- merely shown. Adams is a great shower of people, of place, of social moments and moments of intimacy.

Adams sets women at the center of her stories more often than men and white folk more often than people of color (although some of her most empathic stories are about "the help" -- like "Verlie I Say Unto You" and "Alaska"). She is not a writer of the ventriloquist variety: There are no first-person stories in the voice of a man, for instance; by most external markers, her characters seem close to her, or your sense of her. They are largely straight, in both senses of the word, and adults far more often than children. They are frequently (too frequently) artists (or artistes): painters and poets, musicians and the occasional actor; otherwise, they are strictly professional: lawyers, doctors, editors, art dealers, shrinks. Sometimes, they are animals -- Adams, as was Colette, was a cat person, although she is not beyond attending to the dilemmas of the life of a dog.

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