- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

Shirley Ann Grau may hail from the land of Southern belles but she is no shrinking violet. She is the author of countless short stories, and five novels, including “The Keepers of the House,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. After gracing the pages of American literature for almost 50 years, she has chosen 18 stories spanning her career for a new volume simply titled Selected Stories (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95, 274 pages).

Miss Grau has an immense capacity to get under the skin of her characters, be they women or men, old or young, black or white, bubbas or country clubbers. “One Summer” is a brilliant chronicle of a boy’s revelatory passage from youth to adulthood. The night of his grandfather’s wake, Mac comprehends his own mortality, which ignites a fear of death that will haunt him the rest of his life. “One day I’ll be that afraid … All of a sudden I knew that. Knew that for the first time, I’ll be old and afraid.”

Without resorting to hideous extremes, “One Summer” also encapsulates much that was obscene about segregation — the comfort of white, middle-class, “upright” Southern life within this system; the caricatured, repugnant lens through which many whites viewed blacks; and their mostly utilitarian relations in spite of the close interaction of the two races. Louis Wilkes, a servant of the “old gentleman,” is casually described by Mac as a “poppy-eyed little black monkey of a Negro, no taller than a twelve-year-old, but strong as a man and twice as quick.”

The author possesses a unique style that balances brawn with depth and tenderness. “Hunter” opens with a gruesome yet strangely poetic description of a plane crash in which one woman survives. “A yellow column of flame appeared in the aisle. Glittering, shining. The color of sun, burning like sun. She saw her daughter — recognized the blue and white stripes of her dress — saw her daughter, arms outstretched, rise to meet it. Pass through the gleaming gateway and vanish.”

The sometimes unseemly coexistence of life and death is brought into stark contrast: “All around her small lives went on, undisturbed. Grass broke through its softened seed, uncoiling to the surface, lifting tents of mud on the points of its sharp blades. Leaves unrolled from their tight curls on the twigs overhead, relaxing to the air with soft whisperings of content.”

In “The Beginning” the power of a mother’s love triumphs over social and racial obstacles. “You are, my mother would say, ‘the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure.’ … Her light high whisper threaded through all my days, linking them tightly together, from the day of my birth, from that first moment when I slid from her body to lie in the softness of her bed, the same bed she slept in now.”

Miss Grau is equally adept with irony and humor. “The Patriarch” is a cynically funny treat, in which a wealthy 88-year-old curmudgeon narrates his life through a mosaic of recollections. He tells us: “I grew up alone, but I wasn’t an only child. There was my older sister, Priscilla, who became a beautiful woman and married a well-mannered and very rich man in Chicago. They did nothing unusual in their entire lives, except sail on the Titanic. And drown.”

• • •

In Ten Little Indians (Grove Press, $24, 272 pages), Sherman Alexie, the talented writer of screenplays, poetry and fiction, and winner of a Malamud Award from the Pen/Faulkner Foundation, offers a sardonic, funny, in-your-face collection. Native Americans, a largely invisible group in American literature, take center stage in his nine tales, set in the Seattle area after September 11.

Mr. Alexie takes the reader on a fascinating voyage — seeing the United States through Native American eyes. What soon becomes evident is that there is no such thing as an “Indian,” nor is there a defining Indian experience. The original cultures and traditions have metamorphosed into a contemporary melange of aboriginal and Western habits, with Indian concepts of tribe and ceremony taking on new meanings.

William, the successful family man in “Flight Patterns,” may be “an enrolled member of the Spokane Indian tribe” but he is also “a fully recognized member of the notebook computer tribe and the security checkpoint tribe and the rental car tribe and the hotel shuttle bus tribe and the cell phone roaming charge tribe.”

If there is a common denominator in the stories, it’s a general sense of bitterness and ill-defined identity. In “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above,” the heroine’s son says, “To this day, I rarely look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m an Indian.’ I don’t necessarily know what an Indian is supposed to be. After all, I don’t speak my tribal language and I’m allergic to the earth. If it grows it makes me sneeze.”

Complex, sometimes obnoxious but ultimately disarming, his characters range from middle-class professionals in “Lawyer’s League,” “Flight Patterns” and “Do You Know Where I Am,” to sassy female heroines in “The Search Engine” and “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above,” to homeless drunks in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” One will surely not like all they have to say, but what makes them credible is that they are tough on everyone — themselves, their folk, and white people.

“Do You Know Where I Am” is perhaps the most memorable story. With sensitivity and candor, the author traces the life of a marriage from the beginning, when “Sharon-and-David-the-Bohemian-Indians” meet in college and fall in love, to the birth of their children, adultery, reconciliation, and finally death. How did they beat the odds? “Oh, Lord, we fought hard for our happiness and sometimes we won. And over the years, we won often enough to develop a strong taste of winning.”

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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