Beattie's bleak, vivid galaxy; The Burning House, by Ann Beattie. New York: Random House. 256 pp. $12.95.
Ann Beattie's way with words makes you want to read whatever she writes next, even though every story in this new collection is depressing. A divorced man haunts his former wife's house. Another man doesn't love his wife, but she won't believe him. Couples are together but breaking up, or circles of friends and relatives are grieving for wonderful men who died young.
In their sadness, characters muse on Holden Caulfield childhoods, full of innocence and simplicity, but over with. Even in their past they run into jarring memories that chime with present anxieties.
There are only remnants of the humor seen in earlier Beattie works present in these stories. Her wry displacement of logic has gone a step past anything you could laugh at.
Perhaps the best story in the book is ''Waiting,'' in which the narrator is selling antiques she bought with her husband, who has left on a trip - maybe for good. A woman who buys a cupboard remarks on how old the narrator's dog is. Beattie shows us the relationship of the woman and the dog:
''I put a piece of cheese on top of a cracker and eat it. I get up and go into the living room and offer a piece of cheese to Hugo. He sniffs and takes it lightly from my fingers.
''Earlier today, in the morning, I ran him in Putnam Park. I could hardly keep up with him, as usual. Thirteen isn't so old, for a dog. He scared the ducks and sent them running into the water. . . . Now he is happy, slowly licking his mouth, getting ready for his afternoon nap.''
As she goes about the rest of her chores, the narrator is worried that Hugo is not asleep but dead. Finally, as a friend is visiting, Hugo comes running out the door. She bursts into tears. The friend tries to comfort her by assuring her he will make no judgments on her. ''Just tell me what you've done, '' he says, tenderly - and absurdly - at the end.
The bits of memory and situation Ann Beattie assembles and poises in midair are like the clutch of treasures one Beatty character from the book gathers for a child - ''dried chrysanthemums, half of a robin's blue shell, yellow twine, a sprig of grapes, a piece of a broken ruler.'' They are delicate yet somehow sad, wild, and oddly juxtaposed.
It is hard to believe that someone with Beatty's sharp eye for assembling these collages would be content to leave everything hanging. One suspects she has more such gifts where these came from, and that someday she will take them down and play with them.