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The last resort

July 01, 2007|Carolyn Kellogg | Carolyn Kellogg hosts the literary blog "Pinky's Paperhaus" at www.pinkyspaperhaus.com .

VIVID imagery suffused with longing: The stories in Rebecca Curtis' "Twenty Grand" (HarperPerennial: 240 pp., $13.95 paper) are satisfyingly bittersweet. Eastern resort towns provide most of the settings, but the narrators aren't vacationing -- they're teenagers who waitress, or their dads work in the local garage, or Mom is stuck in a snowbound cabin. The townie dilemma -- feeling ownership of a landscape that the wealthy somehow lay greater claim to -- adds tension to stories filled with gorgeous and telling detail.

"[G]old grasses waved and the metal towers of the lift glinted white. The wires holding the chairs shimmered like mirages in the heat. A hawk floated in the sky like an ash," Curtis writes in "The Alpine Slide," in which a doomed summer business is the backdrop for a sheltered teenager's coming of age. The girls telling these stories -- almost always girls, in first person -- are self-destructive or calmly determined or uncomprehending, but always connected to the beauty around them.

Yet Curtis' debut collection also includes counterpoint, a handful of stories stripped bare of character and setting. In these, a husband and wife remain nameless, physical details are rare and the language is thin and taut. In "Solicitation," the narrator tells us, "At the counter the counter boy looked at us funny. I did not think anything was so funny I did not like his funny look." This deadpan delivery, circular and ultimately unsettling, is paired with the illogic of dreams. Characters move in silhouette against blank backgrounds, like Javanese shadow puppets. If at times the surrealism falls short of the work of, say, an Aimee Bender, it has an unmistakable power. Binding the unreal and real is the common theme of betrayal, more than once between sisters -- betrayal that as it wounds remains genuinely, strangely tender.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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