A City Life Punctuated By the Bizarre

CAMARO CITY

By Alan Sternberg

Harcourt Brace

219 pp., $19.95

``CAMARO City,'' Alan Sternberg's first collection of short stories, several of which have appeared in the New Yorker and Yankee magazine, effectively chronicles the lives of people in a recession-plagued factory town in Connecticut. In the midst of their struggle to pay mortgages, hold onto jobs, and keep families together, these characters' everyday routines are punctuated by a tragic event or bizarre occurrence.

In ``Blazer,'' a group of teenagers hanging out in the parking lot of a Burger King on Saturday night watch as Jeff Fontaine, a star high school pitcher and college-bound senior, flicks a cigarette lighter that bursts into flames, engulfing his hands.

A character in ``Moose,'' Bruce Barmusch, is shot while trying to keep an out-of-town garbage truck driver from dumping at his landfill.

And in ``Camaro City,'' Brunet, an assistant fleet manager at a traprock quarry, moves his family to a motel after his house is destroyed by fire and his Camaro stolen. Brunet's Camaro is the 56th stolen since January in a city of 60,000 people. Professional car thieves have dubbed the city ``Camaro City'' in reference to many people there who own the sport car. Despite the theft and the city's reputation, Brunet won't consider buying any other kind of car.

This defeatist and sometimes defiant attitude pervades many of the stories in the collection. Sternberg's outlook is a dark one, to be sure, but his subtlety and versatility also make each story unique and fresh.

The mishaps often occur as a result of characters who are wittingly or unwittingly looking for adventure or seeking some relief from boredom. Sternberg doesn't pity or belittle these people, however; he pointedly depicts their strengths as well as their failings. Though most of the characters are not given to introspection, they never pretend to be something they are not. In this city of asphalt, fast-food restaurants, and flashing neon signs, there are still evidences of community and family and a sense of what, in the long run, is really important.

* Suzanne L. MacLachlan is on the Monitor staff

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