- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

In The Amount to Carry (Picador, $23, 208 pages) Carter Scholz, a writer and experimental composer, has created a collection of short fiction encompassing almost 20 years of his life, an offbeat romp that plays with time and place. Time here includes hundreds of thousands of years, in places ranging from the United States and Europe to outer space. To read this book is to go on a mesmerizing expedition of the mind and spirit that defies description.
The collection of 12 stories begins with "The Eve of the Last Apollo," in which Mr. Scholz poses the question: What happens when the best work you do and the most exciting time of your life ends before you reach 40? In this and other tales, he portrays the interior lives of his (male) protagonists, and through them, engages us in considerations of fate, coincidence, loss and emotional turmoil. The unnamed narrator in "The Menagerie of Babel" asserts:
"It is only by a series of accidents that we have become what we are. We can look back on the branching paths of cancelled possibility, an angel standing at each branch, that might have led to different selves … But the excluded remain with us. That which we might have become continues to haunt us. To me this was the true menagerie, the myriad triumphs and failures of will that make us what we are."
While a number of the stories could be called science fiction, that is too narrow a classification for with the writer's leaps of imagination into what could be hell or what constitutes eternity. In "Mengele's Jew," Mr. Scholtz takes us into the recollections of the heinous Nazi, and tries to exact a delayed form of justice. In "Altamira," an art historian who longs to know the "mind and motive force" of a particular Flemish master finds himself back in the 15th century with surprising results. Though Mr. Scholz' s prose is unpredictable one moment serious, another amusingly slapstick one can find passages that have poetry and beauty.
Jose Luis Borges fans will enjoy several stories, including "The Nine Billion Names of God." In it, Mr. Scholz, as the main character, asks us: "Why tell stories if all the stories that ever could be told are told constantly in the wind and rain?"

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to know its absence. It's from this perspective that Anika Nailah explores the experience and expression of freedom in her debut collection Free: And Other Stories (Harlem Moon/Broadway, $11.95, 219 pages). Her tales spring from the harsh history of blacks in America and offer a deep, nuanced understanding of freedom. In the prologue she sets the theme that will be explored throughout the book:
"Two brown angels were talking. Old Angel and Young One.
"'All kinds of free, boy,' Old Angel said.
"'What you mean?' Young One asked.
"'Well, there's free to do something. Then there's free not to do something else. There's free of and free from.'"
It is the search for freedom and the determination to secure it that ties together the 14 stories in which the author depicts the lives of blacks in rural and urban settings, North and South from the 1950s onward. In some cases, individual struggles are the focus, as in "Deena," a story about a woman whose beauty robs her of the freedom to exist without the constant attention of the world. In others the focus is relationships: between children and adults, mothers and daughters, women and men.
In the book's title story, Ms. Nailah juxtaposes a grown daughter's grief at her mother's death, with an absurd funeral scene in which the mother appears as a teenager, making light of the service. Readers then learn more about the deceased through her afterlife antics. There are no homilies here, but the net effect is a powerful one.

What happens when you combine a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and an actor nominated for an Oscar? You get Sam Shepard. What happens when he decides to write short fiction? You get Great Dream of Heaven (Knopf, $20, 160 pages), a many-sided prism of characters, mainly men, living on the edge. In 18 stories, Mr. Shepard probes the fragility and humanity of characters who dwell in some of America's blandest corners.
At the same time, Mr. Shepard approaches his fiction like a scientist finding life teeming in a drop of water. There is the suggestion that the characters in these stories may be people who have previously crossed the author's path, leaving their mark because of a look in their eyes or the straightness of their backs. The writer uses such snapshots as a starting point for his often stark but suggestive tales.
The title piece, "Great Dream of Heaven," is particularly compelling. After marriage, divorce and empty nests, two elderly men who have known each other since boyhood live together in amicable solitude. Through these two aged cowboys, Mr. Shepard muses in clear, unadorned prose on the fundamentals of joy, delight and contentment, the fragile nature of such states, and the discomfiting illusion of stability:
"And they both had a tacit understanding of how their version of 'luck' had changed over the years. It no longer had anything to do with money or success or health or the 'future' of any kind that was the main difference. 'Luck' now had to do with the present. Sustaining the present. Celebrating it, in fact. To be sitting here now in this red booth with their backs to the plate-glass window and the Colorado River and the blistering Mojave heat … and to see Faye's eyes settle on them and smile that smile and head toward them with her pad and pencil ready to take their order that was luck of the rarest kind."

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.


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