MacArthur Award winners produce two of season's best; Cathedral, by Raymond Carver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 228 pp. $13.95.
By Bruce Allen Bruce Allen is a contributing editor at Saturday Review. It was big news for the native literary community recently when this year's winners of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Awards were announced. Raymond Carver and Cynthia Ozick will each receive $35,000 a year, tax free, for the next five years. As if in confirmation of their worthiness, both have just published new books that show them at the height of their respective - and very different - powers. ''Cathedral'' continues Raymond Carver's uncompromising anatomies of the thwarted lives of small-town drifters and losers. Its 12 stories essentially resemble his acclaimed earlier ones in their concentration on marital uneasiness , unemployment and boredom, and the sense that failure is everybody's fate. His characters drink, hang around the house, and surrender themselves to self-defeating cynical contemplation (''dreams,'' one of them pronounces, ''are what you wake from''). His dialogue is so clipped and quick it's scarcely expressive - and, indeed, it's spoken by people who are reluctant to say what's bothering them; they embrace their misery, hide it away from others' sight. Yet there is variety in Carver's gray world of run-down neighborhoods and secondhand emotions. The stories are filled with little progressive surprises; we're aware while reading that we really don't know what their characters will say or do next. And they're difficult to summarize, because what they're really about are the spaces between the ''important'' things in people's lives, those moments when nothing makes sense or connects with anything else. In ''Feathers,'' for example, one couple's night out at another's house becomes - by the most modest realistic means imaginable - a transfiguring experience: It gives them a vision of what their later life will be. ''Fever,'' a 20-page story with almost the density of a novella, chronicles the trials of a high school teacher abandoned by his wife and left to make do for their two small children. The ingenious construction, focusing on his experiences interrupted by her phone calls, places emphasis squarely on the way the husband's character changes. ''Where I'm Calling From'' observes several patients at a ''drying-out facility,'' and manages an impressive variety of characterizations and tonal effects. The two finest stories eloquently demonstrate Carver's increasing reach and power. ''A Small, Good Thing'' expands an earlier story about the grief of parents whose small son has died into a rich examination of people's incomprehension, and their resilience. In this new version, a birthday cake ordered, then forgotten, occasions a series of angry, threatening phone calls - and leads to a moving conclusion: It is the chastened baker who offers the bereaved parents consolation by saying, ''You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.'' ''Cathedral'' confronts a jealous, uncertain husband with a visit from his wife's old friend, a blind man. The two stumble into a surprising intimacy and understanding, as the husband, trying to describe a cathedral, finally does so by drawing a picture with the visitor's hand holding his. The story is about learning how to imagine, and feel - and it's the best example so far of the way Raymond Carver's accomplished miniaturist art is stretching itself, exploring new territories. Cynthia Ozick's ''The Cannibal Galaxy'' displays comparable virtuosity and economy in telling - and drawing complex inferences from - the story of a misconceived and misspent life. Its protagonist, Joseph Brill, is principal of a progressive primary school somewhere in the American Midwest, on one of the Great Lakes. The place's very ''middleness'' mocks Brill's intellectual aspirations, his determination to oversee ''the miraculous ascent of lives'' into scholarly accomplishment. A long flashback describes his youth in Paris, where Brill's father was a fishmonger. When the Nazis came to power, Joseph's Jewish family was taken away; he was hidden by nuns in a convent school cellar, where his time was spent mastering the library of ''an old priest (who) had loved thought more than Jesus.'' He vowed then and there to become a teacher, and found a school whose ''dual curriculum'' would embody ''the fusion of scholarly Europe and burnished Jerusalem.'' Years later, in middling Middle America, middle-aged Joseph Brill pursues his dream. A brilliant and eminent woman, ''imagistic linguistic logician'' Hester Lilt, enrolls her daughter Beulah in Brill's school. The child is ''undistinguished,'' unimaginative; the principal imagines how disappointed the gifted mother must be and begins an obsessive communication with her; he's told he ''misunderstands'' Beulah. Other contradictions and surprises follow. The novel expands and reaches outward, as Brill's life does. He marries his secretary and, in old age, fathers a child. The son at first seems a prodigy; later, he concentrates his abilities on business success. It turns out that Beulah Lilt is a genius. And, in his retirement, in Florida, Brill receives letters from his successor detailing the ''updating'' of his school's curriculum (''the European experience is irrelevant to our new generation''); he sees how the world has pronounced him wrong and passed him by. ''The Cannibal Galaxy'' (its title derives ingeniously from an astronomical phenomenon best not described here) is a fable about the consequences of pride in intellect and the attempt to make things over in one's own image. It bears incidental resemblances to Isaac Bashevis Singer's great short story ''The Spinoza of Market Street,'' but it's essentially an original and gripping work made memorable by its author's vivid, fluid style and masterly command of metaphor. Here is Ozick's description of Paris revisited by the elderly Brill, seen in quick flashes as ''the brilliant crinkle of the Seine, the telltale leafiness that was the Tuileries, the honey-colored endless walls of the Louvre.'' There are, furthermore, dozens of sentences that have the quality and force of aphorisms; every page is alive, and all of it works. Carver's stories and Ozick's novel clearly rank among the year's finest fiction. Few will dispute that the MacArthur Foundation has chosen well, and many readers will be eagerly awaiting the future work of Raymond Carver and Cynthia Ozick.
The Cannibal Galaxy, by Cynthia Ozick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 162 pp. $11.95.