An Amateur's Guide to the Night, by Mary Robison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 129 pp. $11.95. Private Parties, by Jonathan Penner. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 197 pp. $13.95. (Drue Heinz Literature Prize, 1983).
Marcovaldo, or Seasons in the City, by Italo Calvino. San Diego: Harcourt Brace/Jovanovich. 121 pp. $9.95.
Three recent books of short fiction have as their focus contemporary life in a deteriorating environment, where the familiar surfaces of myth and autobiography are portrayed through both bleak and, at times, deeply moving symbols. Beyond this, however, these writers share little but a common commitment to their subjects.
On first reading, the most accomplished collection seems to be Mary Robison's An Amateur's Guide to the Night. Working in a minimalist prose style, Robison uses words poetically to convey relationships between seemingly unrelated experiences. The reader will note, however, that her poetry is that of the lean line and stark scene; more is implied than is stated.
In ''Look at Me Go,'' the day is ''pale, the swimming season is over.'' Following an argument with her husband, a woman takes her son to the beach where , for a brief and accidental moment, she converses with a Russian emigre father and son, who represent a dramatic contrast to her own home life. As in an art film, the values are conveyed through assumption; the reader is never told the exact significance of a conversation or gesture. The woman involves herself in a diversion rather than facing the problems of her marriage, but in the narrative cliches predominate.
In the title story, ''An Amateur's Guide to the Night,'' the method is the same, with scenes in which characters express the ''correct'' thing rather than communicate. Here, a young girl wants more than her restrictive small-town life offers: double-dating with her mother, watching TV with her grandfather, and going to the movies and eating popcorn with her family. Her interest in the stars suggests that words as well as motivation fail her, but her resentment of confinement betrays a false understanding which seems more fictitious than personal.
Robison's mastery of writing technique is evident, although one suspects that her teachers were those in writing courses rather than those of reading and experience. She has an ear for domestic detail, but seems unable to understand what her characters are saying. This is the kind of fiction that appeals to readers personally unacquainted with the writer's subjects and who may mistake vagueness for profundity. It should be read for its technical skill rather than for its humanity.
By contrast, Jonathan Penner's Private Parties combines literary skill with a fine sense of character, and the reader closes the book with a respect for the writer and a fondness for his people. ''Private Parties,'' the best to date of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize collections, is an astonishing debut, revealing possibilities for the short story which exceed the usual expectations for literary fiction. The characters in ''Amarillo'' are a boy and his rather reluctant python, Amarillo. The story, which could have been just another ''rites of passage'' tale, has an ending twist as logical as it is surprising. ''Frankenstein Meets the Ant People'' deals with a boy adjusting to his father's remarriage. Its parallel subplot has the same character, in adulthood, looking back on his youth and the experience.
''Uncle Hersh'' is a study in compromise and eccentricity of a man who is much more interesting - although less successful - than the narrator. Jonathan Penner writes with depth and feeling about families, relationships, and alienation.
Marcovaldo, or Seasons in the City, by Italo Calvino, is a series of tales - modern and ironic fables of urban life centering on a character who is a kind of Italian Sad Sack. Although Calvino's characters (like the author) live in Italy, neither the language nor foreign setting minimize the universality of the collection. In ''The Garden of Stubborn Cats,'' a friendship between Marcovaldo and a cat shows us the city from the tabby's point of view, demonstrating that pets never belong to their owners, but possess them.
In ''Santa's Children,'' the streets are filled with Santa Clauses; in homes where toys litter the lavish rugs, children puzzle over the myth of Santa Claus and the reality of Christmas among ordinary people.
Neither a political writer nor a realist, Calvino presents the contemporary experience through fictional fragments. There is a strangeness in his writing that is both poetic and speculative and has a haunting effect. Calvino succeeds where other writers fail: he breathes life into his fables and writes sparingly with a mastery that demonstrates how much detail can be safely omitted. His is the skill of the storyteller's art, which has evolved from a time when people used the tale to explain a mystifying world.