Lives Fixed in Flux. BOOKS

LOVE LIFE: STORIES by Bobbie Ann Mason, New York: Harper & Row, 241 pp., $17.95

IN Bobbie Ann Mason's universe, all is in flux: the Kentucky farms are being replaced by subdivision ``farmettes,'' factories from the North are moving in. Satellite dishes bristle from backyards, bringing a dizzying squawk of loud, confusing stations.

It's a universe she brought to our attention in her first book, ``Shiloh and Other Stories,'' in 1983, which won a PEN/Hemingway Award for a first work of fiction. And it's one she continues to explore in her fourth, ``Love Life,'' also a collection of short stories. In them, she chronicles the lives of people who are trying to keep their footing as the new era swirls in around them. Some are looking to take the next step.

The country cousins of John Updike's and Ann Beattie's well-heeled suburbanites, Mason's characters watch cable TV, have yards strewn with vehicles, and vacation at Disney World. They're inarticulate, yearning people, dissatisfied with their lives and unmoored by change.

``In the last months they lived together,'' thinks Beverly about her ex-husband in one story, ``Memphis,'' ``she had begun to feel that her mind was crammed with useless information, like a landfill, and there wasn't space deep down in her to move around in, to explore what was there. She felt she had strong ideas and meaningful thoughts, but often when she tried to reach for one she couldn't find it.''

Mickey, a real estate broker in ``Private Lies,'' wants to find the daughter he and his first wife gave up for adoption 18 years ago. The fragmentation of his thinking is reflected in the writing. ``If Mickey had some money, he'd hire a detective. If he sold a house, he would go to Florida to search for his daughter. He would kidnap Donna [his first wife] and take her with him. He couldn't get over her bridgework. It made her smile sexy and mysterious. Nobody was thinking seriously of buying.''

As one could guess from the titles, these stories have something to do with love, sometimes between parent and child, or between friends. But most often the love she's exploring is the marital, or premarital, variety. Often it has gone stale. While Mason's men think about making change, too often it's just that; thinking. Her women are the ones who most often think about doing something different and end up doing it.

The exception is Cobb, a 28-year-old soil conservation worker eager to get married, in ``Coyotes.'' He finds a sense of adventure in life through his fianc'ee, Lynette, who makes him feel as if ``there are different ways to look at the world.''

The beauty of the pieces lies in Mason's eye for detail. ``The men's shorts on Mrs. Bush's wash line flap in the breeze like flags of surrender.'' Mason is a loving scribe to a way of life ignored in an upscale world. She precisely renders small moments, and has a knack for capturing quirks.

But there is a sameness to it all; the lassitude, the small dreams and baby steps of freedom ended up affecting this reviewer like a mall where the stores all carry the same goods. One wishes that once in a while these characters, whose wings are flapping, would actually take off.

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