Bowles: a master of bizarre exotica, irony; Collected Stories 1939-1976, by Paul Bowles. Introdcution by Gore Vidal. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press (PO Box 3993, 93105). $14 in hard cover, $7.50 in paperback.

In his introduction to this fine collection of stories, Gore Vidal poses a significant question: Why is the work of "so good" a writer as Paul Bowles so little known to his fellow Americans?

Vidal suggests that American readers expect good American writers to treat "the American experience." Since Bowles has lived overseas, mainly in Morocco, for more than three decades, he deals with other themes. A frequent one is what Vidal terms "the plain incomprehension of Americans in contact with the natives" of other cultures.

Other elements in Bowles's work also make his writing seem strange, unsettling, difficult -- in short, antipathetic -- to his fellow countrymen.

To begin with, Bowles's reality is not an American reality. It is haunted, superstitious, pretechnological. It is more brutal, more primitive, less anchored to what is conscious.

The distinctions most Americans make be tween what is factual and what is imagined, for example, have little relevance in these stories. Some read like dreams set down as actualities. Some Americans will find many of these stories and the odd, evocative power of the emotionless writing distinctly unnerving.

In "A Distant Episode," for example, a professor of linguistics visits a town on the margins of the Sahara. As events unfold, he is led into the desert at night by a cafe-keeper and left there. "A sudden violent desire to run back to the road seized him," the story tells us. We share the terror that inspires it.

Soon the Reguibat, savage tribesmen, attack the linguist. They cut out his tongue, make a grotesque buffoon-minstrel out of him, and sell him to the Tuareg. Eventually the professor unconsciously sets in motion actions that work a revenge (tongueless linquists and unconscious acts are typical touches of Bowlesian irony).

While more violent than most of the 39 stories collected here, this tale is quintessential Bowles. The story possesses artistic wholeness. The style of the writing anchors it in credibility. The clash of cultures maims. On its own "primitive," non-American terms it is real.

But did it happen? Or is it just the dream of the terrified linguist sitting in the dark desert experiencing that "sudden violent desire to run back to the road"? Is the story real?

These are all the wrong questions -- and therein lies the art.

They are splendidly crafted stories, handsomely printed in this volume. They seem to float out of the author's unconscious, out of the worldview he shares with his adopted cultures.

These stories are not for every taste. But for adventurous readers, especially those fascinated by the frictions of intercultural contact, they offer an exquisit e treat.

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