THE GIFT OF STONES by Jim Crace, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 170 pp., $16.95
SOMETIMES the slightest books carry the most weight. Coming across a book like Jim Crace's ``The Gift of Stones'' in the era of the empty blockbuster is like stumbling onto an orchid in the desert.
The 170-page novel starts with a boy, who lives among stonecutters or ``stoneys'' during the Stone Age, being shot in the arm by a marauding horseman, necessitating the amputation of his arm at the elbow.
Feeling useless and scorned among people who smugly pride themselves on their craft - after all, ``this was the village of stone where work and trade were king and queen'' - he leaves the community in frustration. After various adventures he returns to triumph with a newfound profession, storytelling. ``My story,'' he says, ``takes its shape from what has happened to my arm. With two arms I'd be knapping [to break stones by striking sharply] and too dull and chalky to tell tales. With two arms I'd not have taken off along the coast, or killed the goose, or brought the woman and her girl back home. An arrow ruled my world; it made me what I am.''
Clearly and evocatively, Crace sets out many beginnings and endings in this novel: the end of a boy's future as a stonecutter, the beginning of his life as a weaver of tales, ``the minstrel-king of lies, the teller of wide tales who could not [they said] even pick his nose with his one helpless arm. He couldn't shell an egg. Yet with his tongue, he could concoct from, say, geese, ships, and smells a world more real than real.'' The stodgy stoney community begins to appreciate and rely on the release and enchantment stories bring.
Crace shows how the discovery of bronze, the beginning of the Bronze Age, shatters like faulty flint the world of the stonecutters. Crace writes wonderfully, at times like a poet who has turned to prose:
``But what is liberty anyway? Not much more than self-deceit, a fantasy. It only takes one stolen dawn while all the world's asleep for the prisoner of dull routine to count himself quite free. It does not matter that the days that follow are as patterned and as uniform as the cells and chambers of a honeycomb. And so it was that father walked along the cliff-top path emboldened by the dawn and relishing the cold and deathly night he's spent huddled by his fire.''
When the boy returns from the outside world he brings with him what the stone people learn they need as they perch on cusp between the two eras of stone and bronze, the escape of a good story.
There's a love story here, too, and the weapon that ends that story reveals the Bronze Age to the stoneys. ``Then one man noticed what the rest had missed. He pulled the broken wooden shaft from the arrowhead. He pushed his little finger in the hole it left and held it up for all his friends to see. At first they were confused. And then they knew that flint was second-best. This stem was something flint could never be, as hollow as an acorn cup and 20 times as deep.'' Later, ``merchants showed us axes that had wings, and helmets horned like rams, and beaten shields as round and gleaming as the sun, and knives with pommels engraved with claws or snakes or eyes.'' Given the discovery, only the storyteller has the courage, or brashness, to voice ``the one thought that lay siege to everybody's mind.'' He said, ``So now we know why trade in flint is bad.'' Everyone knew ``the stoneys were a dying breed. This was the age of smiths.''
With the end of the stonecutters' craft comes the one-armed storyteller's final triumph. They need vision to lead them out of a dying way of life. He alone had ventured outside their closed world. So ``at last he was in charge. As soon as it was clear that village life was dead and that the stoneys had to leave, who else was there to show the way but father?
``They all recalled the times he told them what life was like beyond the village and the hill. Their little liar was to be their guide.... He leapt. And called. And danced. He made promises that they would find a world more lively than the one they'd known. He was the sporting porpoise that always leads the school.''
By the end of the book, imagination and vision prove more powerful and useful a gift than stones. We know that without vision, without those able to open minds to the outside world, societies cannot adapt to change. Crace tells us this, but also tells just a wonderful story. You feel that the way he imagines the Stone Age must be the way it was. Invention is his, as well as his main character's, true craft.