TERRIBLE KISSES: STORIES, by Robley Wilson Jr. New York: Simon & Schuster. 219 pp. $17.95 ROBLEY WILSON JR. isn't a writer who ties things up in neat packages. The characters who populate his finely tuned short stories have all the rough edges of life, and the emotions that spill over onto the pages - rage, guilt, desire, regret - are not easily contained. For all their unsettling, even disturbing, aspects, however, his stories are nonetheless compelling.
The title of this collection hints at the tenor of the 14 stories it includes. ``Kisses'' reveals the subject matter - relationships, a whole range of which are observed, from male-female to those between family members, neighbors, even pets. ``Terrible'' suggests the territory that Wilson explores (indeed the common thread that ties the stories together): the darker side of love.
The vivid imagery of the title story lingers on long after the book has been set aside. Maureen, wanting to give her lover an unforgettable birthday gift, literally covers him from head to toe with bright, lipsticked kisses. There's a black humor to the fact that Harris soon discovers no amount of scrubbing will remove these marks of love, and that they're starting to tingle as well. Poor man. He hides out at home, tries emery and sandpaper, even ``rubs his face with fish oil and gets the cats to lick him with their rough tongues,'' but the kisses don't budge, and what's worse, the tingling escalates to the point where he can't stay still. ``He paces endlessly, as if he might somehow walk away from the agony of the kisses, but he wears that agony like perverse clothing.'' Harris is a man literally burning up with love. There's a fine irony in his ultimate realization that he can't run away from his emotions.
``Favorites,'' the briefest of the stories, is a poignant requiem to married love. It chronicles a man's readjustment to life after the death of his wife, his coming to terms with a nagging sense of guilt, and his first, tentative weeks of widowerhood.
While cleaning out the refrigerator, he discovers a cake pan containing his favorite dessert - a confection his wife made for him the night before she died.
``The sweetness of the dessert makes his wife's presence vivid to him; as he indulged his appetite, his memory indulged the past.'' This tangible symbol of his married life is doled out sparingly, lingered over, and finally, unsentimentally finished off and the pan set to soak in the sink. Life continues.
The other stories in the collection are equally memorable. ``Payment in Kind'' observes a hard-working Iowa farm couple, and shows the toll such a life (especially during a drought) can take on individuals and on a marriage. In ``Praises,'' a chance meeting on the streets of Copenhagen between an artist and a woman he once loved and lived with leads to a bittersweet reunion and the certainty that those we love, or once loved, are forever a part of our lives.
Characters in several stories teeter on the brink of madness, and others erupt in violence. Some of the subject matter Wilson probes - suicide, racism, the illicit desires that often lurk beneath the thin veneer of respectability - may be offensive to a few readers. Nevertheless, Wilson is a consummate writer. His stories are exquisitely crafted and balanced, and whether set in New Hampshire, West Virginia, or Denmark, they're sharply focused and drenched with the kind of close detail that anchors a story and gives it a strong sense of place.
``Terrible Kisses'' is a pleasure to read, if for nothing else but the sheer enjoyment of watching a master of the genre at work.