Goyen's haunting stories evoke the rural Texas past

Had I a Hundred Mouths: New and Selected Stories, 1947-83, by William Goyen. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. 288 pp. $15.95. The stories of William Goyen are about telling: not simply in the sense of relating experiences, but telling as an act of purifying, even absolving, one's self.

The voices that tell the 21 stories of ``Had I a Hundred Mouths'' -- most of which take place in the hot, lost pre-World War II towns of Goyen's native east Texas -- sound as if they are compelled to do so. The reader is made to feel like a confidant who, simply by listening, will lighten for the teller the weight of a sin or family secret, or help make sense of the conflicts in small-town life.

It is the mix of this urgency of telling and the insularity of pre-electronic rural living that gives Goyen's stories their haunting quality. And it is this quality which in turn makes them good entertainment.

The stories and novels of William Goyen -- who lived most of his life estranged from the state whose earlier days he labors to re-create in his writing -- are especially right for readers intrigued by the cadences of a regional speech that has progressively given way to a national homogenization since World War II.

In ``Ghost and Flesh,'' one of the stories collected here, Goyen explains this need to tell, which is a cornerstone of his work:

``Now I believe in tellin while we're live and goin roun; when the tellin time comes I say spew it out, we just got to tell things, things in our lives, things that've happened, things we've fancied and things we dream about or are haunted by. . . .''

Much in the same way that Guy de Maupassant horrified, yet intrigued, his Parisian audience with eerie tales of rural Normandy a century ago, Goyen tells the urban (or suburban) American reader of people not so far away, either in place or time: a man who carries a worm in his leg; a woman driven mad by a white rooster; people who cannot go back home; and simple souls who carry dark family secrets.

It's not always pleasant reading, nor did Goyen, who passed on in Los Angeles in 1983, intend his work to be. ``It starts with trouble,'' he says of his writing in an interview with TriQuarterly's Reginald Gibbons, contained in the book. ``You don't think it starts with peace, do you?''

Nor is his writing always easy. Goyen is a writer for whom ``language is always a principal character in the story,'' and this can lead to complex, even bewildering writing.

As Joyce Carol Oates points out in the introduction to this collection -- a previous collection won a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1975 -- Goyen's stories are best read one to a sitting.

My personal favorite here is ``The Grasshopper's Burden,'' the tale of a young girl whose high school days, full of Sam Houston and as perfectly ordered as the makeup she wears, are troubled by a deformed boy who haunts her ``like a wounded insect.''

But perhaps Goyen's most irresistible talent is simply the way he begins his tales. Who could turn away from a story that begins: ``I started out to tell about what became of two cousins and their uncle who loved them, according to what the older cousin told me. But some of their kinfolks' lives would have to be told . . . ''; or ``It is true that I have not been able to utter more than a madman's sound since my eyes beheld the sight. I've lost my speech. And so they have asked me to write.''

These are voices compelled to tell us what they know. And we in turn are swept in, compelled to listen.

Howard LaFranchi is the Monitor's correspondent in Austin, Texas.

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