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Driven to despair

California Transit Stories Diane Lefer Sarabande Books: 238 pp., $15.95 paper

June 17, 2007|Judith Freeman | Judith Freeman is the author of a story collection and several novels, most recently "Red Water." Her forthcoming nonfiction book, "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved," will be released in the fall.

IN the title story of Diane Lefer's new collection, "California Transit," Anita, a woman in her early 50s, moves from New York to Los Angeles. En route, the U-Haul she's driving breaks down in the desert and her beloved cat Dinah succumbs to the blistering heat. Distraught, she abandons the dead cat and the U-Haul at a motel in Blythe and takes a bus to L.A., eventually renting a bleak room over a line of boarded-up stores in San Pedro. Anita begins riding buses every day, not because she has any destination in mind but because, as she puts it, she is trying to learn to live in a place rather than in her head.

Like many characters in Lefer's stories, Anita is deeply troubled, but why? We learn that her former husband beat her, that when she was a civil rights activist she spent time in a Mississippi jail and that she later considered adopting a little Mexican girl from Oaxaca until the local priest dissuaded her. ("Why save her," the priest said, "if you're going to leave the conditions that create her problems all unchanged?") Anita, once a lawyer for the poor, is now broke and "living with a heart devoid of charity."

Of the eight stories in this collection, the novella-length "California Transit" is the jewel. It reveals Lefer's full range of talents and a finely tuned social consciousness. The author was involved in the civil rights movement, lived in Mexico, learned Spanish and now volunteers with a program for torture victims and works with an animal behavior observation team at the L.A. Zoo, activities that echo in Anita's life. One day, Anita takes the bus to a federal prison on Terminal Island, where asylum seekers are held under harsh conditions; she also gravitates to a marine sanctuary for damaged sea animals. At the sanctuary, she meets Burton, an old Stalinist with a fondness for drink. (He may be "a bit of a monster," Anita says, but he's "the only one who was kind.")

Lefer, the author of two previous volumes of short stories ("The Circles I Move In" and "Very Much Like Desire") and the novel "Radiant Hunger," won the 2005 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction for "California Transit" from Sarabande Books, a nonprofit literary press. It's easy to see why a judge would want to honor these stories. They are smart, well written and have that most elusive of qualities: vitality. They take on difficult issues -- immigration, racism, torture, animal suffering, environmental degradation. That makes her stories sound humorless; they aren't. A vein of wry wit runs through them. In "Alas, Falada!" a woman working for the L.A. Zoo is driving to San Bernardino with the frozen head of an African antelope on the seat next to her as she debates what to do with it (honored burial or a specimen flensed, stripped of skin and left for insects to pick clean?).

"Naked Chinese People," about a couple with a weekend cabin in Joshua Tree, begins, "We were always finding naked Chinese people in the shower." As improbable as this might sound, Lefer makes you believe it could happen. But the story is really about the narrator's first marriage -- to a black man who was mistaken for an intruder and murdered, leaving her shattered.

Again and again, Lefer's characters collide with the "other," with people of different cultures and races in sunny Southern California, a place whose wide, flat vistas are not "open horizon, but violent exposure." Anita finds it all so ugly, yet she thinks, "All over the world, this is the city people dream about." Later, she's assured that there's "good stuff in L.A. and good people. In the margins. In the corners. Kind of hidden."

"At the Site Where Vision Is Most Perfect" deals with the horrors of the federal system that detains immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. A Mexican woman with the improbable name of Clifford Pearlstein is wrongly arrested and locked up in a holding facility, denied even a phone call. Clifford (or "Cliff," as she's called) is an educated woman, an architect married to a research doctor, with a teenage son named Matt. In letters to Matt, she describes her ordeal with increasing dispassion as hope drains out of her. In the end, she's deported, and as Matt and his father prepare to make a new life with her in Mexico, the father mentions different communities of Americans where they might live. You understand Matt's bitterness when he says, "I don't want to live near Americans."

There's so much anger in these stories, and often it seems appropriately directed at a corrupt society, a diseased world. When one character suggests that things are so bad we're living in a police state, you can't entirely disagree. Yet often there are timorous signs of hope. "My heart is hard," one narrator says. "I'm going to get better." You're not sure you believe her.

Some stories in the collection are stronger than others, markedly so, but even those that feel somewhat slight or incomplete still demonstrate a special talent at work. One thing is certain: Lefer gets L.A. All that time watching animals in the L.A. Zoo has made her a sharp observer of the behavior of all kinds of animals and their environments; to her, looking is what it's all about. As Anita says of L.A. in "California Transit," "I think there's two ways to be happy here. The way the rich do, ignoring everything around them. Or else, to pay very close attention."

There's no mystery about which way Lefer has chosen to live.

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