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All About Families

By Mary Warner MarienMary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y. / June 29, 1990



IN the opening line of ``Anna Karenina,'' Leo Tolstoy observed that all happy families resemble each other, but that every unhappy family is unhappy according to its own fashion. Reading this selection of short fiction, one senses that Tolstoi was only half right. There seem to be just as many varieties of happiness as unhappiness, each the unique product of the way in which individuals knit themselves into a family unit. In Truman Capote's radiant holiday story, ``A Christmas Memory,'' a boy of seven and his shy, eccentric female cousin of 60-something create for each other the warmth missing in their household. When most of the relatives have left the homeplace in ``Kin,'' Eudora Welty's finely realized tale, those who remain make an impromptu family from neighbors and strangers. The children in ``Spittin' Image of a Baptist Boy,'' Nanci Kincaid's refreshing divorce story, count on their stepfather more than their birth-father.

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But when the fabric of family feeling, however constructed, starts to unravel, and the unspoken assumption of respectful interdependence becomes a nagging whine, no territory is as treacherous as the home.

Children at any age may spin out of control, as they do in Mary Hood's ``A Man Among Men,'' or Shirley Cochrane's ``Leaving.'' Celebrations, like that which propels ``Happy Birthday, Billy Boy'' by Ruth Moose, invite misery. As the young protagonist in Lee Smith's ``Artists'' learns, under stress a marriage may become little more than a deceitful ritual of appearances.

Oddly enough, despite the intent of the editors, few of these stories are unremittingly Southern. ``Earl Goes to the Site and Stares Until He Sees,'' Dennis Johnson's narrative of a woman on her fourth trip to Washington, D.C., to find her mentally disturbed husband, could have taken place anywhere, as could ``Love Life,'' by Bobbie Ann Mason.

While these stories have Southern settings, universal family dynamics, not geography, motivate their plots. Ellen Douglas's ``I Just Love Carrie Lee,'' whose fiction depends on the sad remnants of slavery, is an obvious exception.

The sheer technical brilliance of Alice Walker's ``Everyday Use'' makes it the gem of the collection. Walker adroitly condenses the complex relation of a mother and her two daughters. Her lean writing, in which every word counts, exemplifies the challenge of the short-story form. Rather than telling a story, Walker lets the reader feel its pulse quicken as the narrative reaches the point that writer Frank O'Connor called the psychological moment after which nothing is ever the same.

Readers know that such a moment lurks in a short story, but they do not know where. Writers work to lull that expectation. One goes back to good short fiction again and again because of this teasing interactive tension between reader and writer. Truman Capote's ``A Christmas Memory,'' familiar to many of us since high-school English classes, (when we did not know how to shed an honest tear), is still moving because of Capote's genius to assuage the intensity of our anticipation.

Like families, short-story anthologies have their own particular flavor. For my taste, this collection combines so many different kinds of stories, that it is difficult to savor each of them clearly. But then, I like only vanilla ice cream in my banana splits. If you like it when the chocolate, strawberry, and pistachio run together, dip into this assemblage.