Stories of perfect pitch and balance

THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1988 edited by Mark Helprin. Series editor: Shannon Ravenel.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 345 pp. $17.95

WITH all the grace of a chartered bus, 10-year-old Callie goes swiftly through her parents' house turning on all the faucets. She has had a profound vision. Her lost malachite beads will be returned through the town's water supply.

Gish Jen, author of ``The Water-Faucet Vision,'' a 9-page story of perfect pitch and balance, explains in her biographical notes that she crafted the story from random parts. ``Somewhere I had read something to the effect that [John] Updike at times simply stared at unrelated things until they became related.''

There it is, an almost complete confession of how the elements of most short stories find life. From her own life, Jen took an item lost down a sewer, a voice that whispered to her once from the rafters of a cabin, threw in a husband who tossed his wife out a window, and added a list of prayer goals tacked to a broom-closet door. She patched the mess together to read as if the tale was absolutely meant to be.

Jen's story and the others in this collection of 20 short stories were selected by novelist Mark Helprin from American and Canadian magazines after he read dozens of stories with the authors' names removed. He selected stories by such writers as Raymond Carver, Louise Erdrich, E.S. Goldman, and Ralph Lombreglia. For the most part, the stories are ``meant to be.''

Despite the utter hopelessness of stories such as ``Helping,'' by National Book Award winner Robert Stone, or of tales in which the characters are doomed by excess and whine, the command of the art of short-story telling here is simply superb.

Put aside those two-pound novels, miss television for a night or two, skip a movie on the weekend, and curl up with some storytellers equal to Scheherazade.

For instance, in Lucy Honig's buoyant ``No Friends, All Strangers,'' the hairdresser narrator and her boss, both New Yorkers, are in possession of a simple secret: They are satisfied with what they have because they thrive on a resilience that rises out of the way they interpret the trials and buffeting of urban life. ``We're probably the only two around who are this way,'' says the narrator. She doesn't mind that ``there are days when a big arrow in the sky must be pointing down at me.''

She takes the challenge, draws others to her because of her prickly frankness, but knows the limits of the responsibility. ``I fill up on people I don't know before I ever get to friends,'' she tells a male customer. ``Like on cheese and crackers before you get to dinner?'' he asks. ``Sort of,'' she answers.

Honig's style here is chatty first person, delightfully smooth, with dialogue that could have been sappy but is spoken by a character who savors life no matter how dumb it seems at times.

A bonus is the inclusion of a brief ``explanation'' by each author about the origins of his or her story. To a great degree this feature reveals writers caught in the throes of telling well-crafted stories. Not a one is shaping symbols or derivative literary allusions so beloved by academics.

Writing about ``Wonderland,'' a story of two boys abandoned by their mother, C.S. Godshalk relates that she simply watched the characters unfold as she wrote. When she got to the final paragraphs, she introduced two new characters who didn't seem appropriate. Out they came.

The next morning, Godshalk ``tore down to the room where I write and put them back and felt suddenly on an even keel with the universe.''

She was right.

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