Saturday, June 14, 2003

After reaching the end of The Deep and Other Stories by Mary Swan (Random House, $23.95, 224

pages), I wanted more — more of the mesmerizing, submerged state of consciousness her writing induces; more of her stunning descriptions and sometimes tragic plots; more of her rich insights into human nature and human hearts. The Canadian author won the 2001 O’Henry Award for short fiction and has published in a number of literary journals on both sides of the border.

With titles such as the “The Deep,” “Down by the Lake,” “By the Sea, By the Sea” and “At the River,” water figures prominently in the collection. It sometimes lurks ominously near the characters, ultimately engulfing them. In many instances, Ms. Swan creates the sensation of viewing the world through water and it is a world of treachery and loss that tests her characters.

“The Deep,” the most compelling story in the book, is actually a novella that revolves around inseparable twin girls who volunteer at a field hospital near the front in World War I. Telling the story from varied perspectives, Ms. Swan weaves its strands together to create a suspenseful tale. When a journalist “fresh from home” asks the sisters to recall an experience that could sum up what the war is like, they answer: “So we told him about traveling on a road near Ancerville where the bombardment had been heavy a few days before. How we stopped to stretch our legs, and found a small, perfect child’s hand, lying palm up in the dust.”

In “Peach,” a searing marital betrayal, an extinguished heart and a half-lived life are captured in this affecting paragraph: “The part of Grace that cared had turned to stone, and she found it wasn’t so hard to say a few words and then walk on. Not even hard to face Harry across the supper table, to watch his hair turn gray. To go with him on winter trips to Florida, to stroll on the beach with her arm in his, to watch their children marry one by one. Years went by, ten years, twenty, and it was only sometimes that she thought of the smooth sheen of a peach in Harry’s brown hand and knew that it could have been another way.”

• • •

The writing career of ZZ Packer began with a bang. A recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, she has published in The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Best American Short Stories of 2000. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, $24.95, 238 pages) pulls together her work thus far. Whether amusing or sympathetic, her characters are complex creations, vibrant with humanity.

In the comically poignant “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” Ms. Packer pokes gentle fun at Bible-thumping church ladies, beloved pillars of African American life. Readers are introduced to Sister Clareese, the unmarried choirmistress at the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized. By day a nurse determined to “Spread the Gospel,” she finds herself discombobulated by a blues-playing amputee under her care and embarks on a mission. “The more she’d considered Cleophus’ situation —his loss of limb, his devil’s music, his unsettling laughter—the more she grew convinced that he was her Missionary Challenge. That he was especially in need of Saving.”

Whether the subtext is racial tension, as in “Brownies” and “Doris is Coming,” black-on-black mistreatment, as in “Our Lady of Peace” and “Speaking in Tongues,” or the wearying struggle of living black in a white world, Ms. Packer does not flinch. In the title story, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” Dina, a hostile freshman on a scholarship at Yale has difficulty relating to the privileged world of well-to-do whites and a few blacks.

Her defenses are tested by her only friend, a chubby Canadian girl who dresses like an “aspiring plumber,” and the smirky campus shrink. When he accuses her of pretending, she thinks: “Dr. Raeburn would never realize that ‘pretending’ was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere.”

• • •

It was with curiosity that I approached Karl Iagnemma’s On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction (Dial Press, $22.95, 224 pages). What kind of short stories could a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist in robotics possibly write? The answer is very good ones. Mr. Iagnemma is the winner of the Paris Review Discovery Prize and was published in the Best American Short Stories 2002. His eight tales are set primarily in Michigan, and are populated by scientists, mathematicians and doctors. In the title story, mathematical equations prove useless in the face of love and jealousy.

“Kingdom, Order, Species” is a comic romp about a young forestry professor mad about a book entitled, “Woody Plants of North America.” Every time she dates a man she “could possibly fall in love with” she reads him her favorite passage that begins, “Rarely do trees bear perfect flowers, having both stamens and pistils as well as showy petals.” Unfortunately, her amorous utterances do not produce a reciprocal response. “The bedroom was half-dark, but I knew the passage well enough to recite it cold. When I finished, I glanced over: Pavel lay on his back, eyes closed, a faint whistle rising from his nose.”

In several other stories, Mr. Iagnemma travels to back to the 19th century, when the Midwest was a still a frontier. “Children of Hunger” and “The Indian Agent” are both set in the early 1820s at a rough outpost near the straits of Sault de Sainte Marie. In the former, an injured French Canadian voyager becomes a human guinea pig for a doctor’s gruesome research on the digestive system. “His cheeks were fleshy and pale, covered by a wispy orange beard, and his slack mouth revealed two missing front teeth. Corded muscle sloped from his neck to his freckled shoulders.” Narrated by the physician’s neglected wife, the well plotted story is a wrenching one.

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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