Reading the rags

Hats off to Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills and associate editor Tom Jenks. Their ''Summer Reading'' issue (Esquire, August) takes readers on an all-encompassing pleasure cruise through contemporary American fiction. E. L. Doctorow, Joyce Oates, and John Updike contribute three of the seven short stories that form the issue's core. Extracts from novels represent William Gass, Ken Keysey, Jayne Ann Phillips, and Robert Stone. Individually and in ensemble, the 11 selections combine the virtues of fictions found in popular magazines (entertainment, charm, wit) with those encountered in literary quarterlies (eccentricity, serious purpose).

Together they constitute the finest anthology of current American short fiction published in a year notable for excellent volumes of the same. Having said this, one hates to notice that our finest represents superior craft describing smaller and smaller circles upon one prosaic acre of ocean.

In his introductory essay, Hills suggests we are witnesses to ''a fantastically rich and varied period in American literary history.'' He cites ''a rich variety of fictional modes and narrative strategies unprecedented in any land at any time.'' The selections do display variety in their narrative voices. Gass and Phillips soliloquize floods of sense impressions. Keysey and Stone come out punching in tough-talk dialogues. James Salter seduces with restrained yet sensuous elegance, while Joy Williams employs an arhythmic, camera-cool detachment.

Look beyond voice to content, however, and variety melts into consensus. Unremittingly domestic in setting, stubbornly literal in point of view, the 11 selections describe dramas you might find around the house; nine of them do so according to conventional, realist precepts. In metaphoric stories, from myth to Bible, brothers Grimm, Poe, Dinesen, protagonists pit themselves against powers whose awesome presences they feel rather than observe. In contrast, the characters and authors of Esquire's gathering, and in fact those of contemporary American fiction in general, belong to the tradition of Chekhov. They contend with neither gods nor nature; they spar, instead, with spouses, children, employers. They seek nothing as splendid as immortality or divine notice. Their loftiest ambition centers on securing, even fleetingly, another floundering mortal's affection.

As architect of the modern short story, Chekhov concentrated his focus on the socio-psychological chess game created by individuals clustered in ensemble. In a Chekhovian universe, superhuman forces do not exist; inquiry focuses on the tangle of motives that draw characters from the path all logic and common sense dictate. In Esquire, as elsewhere, Chekhov's American heirs take the inadequacy of human communication as their central theme. They portray ''people you and I know'' struggling to overcome an isolation their authors perceive as endemic to the human condition. Struggles end in defeat, or - since realism rejects the symmetry of Beginning-Middle-End as contrived - in an ambiguous stalemate intended to echo ''real life.''

Of the Esquire group, only Doctorow and Joy Williams deliver readers from conflict to the shores of resolution. The others perceive no shore, and so no further purpose than minute examination of characters playing out their futile strategies before night envelops all, Chekhov-style. But a century has passed since Chekhov wrote. The fresh vision he offered is decidedly shopworn.

Trapped within realism's confines, the arena of fiction has dwindled from heaven and firmament to shopping mall and suburban backyard. We see ourselves portrayed not as heroes and demigods, but as the mass-produced drones of a dreary life process. Hills concludes his introduction: ''Contemporary American fiction is in fine shape - except it lacks the readership it deserves.'' Current American fiction discounts the inexpressible; it ignores the invisible. To judge by the public's present love affair with pulp heroes and improbable worlds of gaudy adventure, the invisible and inexpressible are exactly what a fiction-reading public craves and finds lacking in the work of our finest writers. Readers may applaud such accomplished fiction as that brilliantly compiled in Esquire, but until writers steer their formidable craft away from routine shallows of domestic verisimilitude, those readers will travel elsewhere for visions of the deep and mysterious.

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