Short Stories That Expand With Detail

IN reading Elizabeth Tallent's new collection of stories, ``Honey,'' one feels a sense of having been here before. The language is precise, the structures artful, the stories working with an awareness of just how finely crafted they are. Meaning arises from the detailed images Tallent weaves together or perhaps from a character's misspoken word. At times Tallent's powerful sense of detail gives her fiction a miniaturized quality: To speak of an intricate world, something is sacrificed in terms of scope. And yet these stories differ from her earlier work in that they have a new expansiveness about them. The more one reads, the more one sees everything is almost the same, but not quite.

Many of the stories are again set in the Southwestern United States, inheriting the quality of isolation the region bequeaths. But the stories no longer always move toward the dissolution of relationships and lives. Relationships continue to dissolve, but now characters cobble together new lives. In ``Get It Back for Me,'' Tallent writes, ``That night's argument was about love, because it was almost always love, because they couldn't exhaust the momentum of If you loved me, then and You can't understand, because.'' The happy ending never comes, but neither does Armageddon, and there is no escape from the beautiful but pathetic cycles life sometimes offers.

No one is sure how to go about fixing their lives in these stories, and it seems a moment of grace when their words and actions help instead of hurt. The most telling moments come when things don't go as planned: when a woman's pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; when a remarried husband telephones his ex-wife for advice and his current mother-in-law walks in; when a father, trying to assuage his son's grief, takes him to buy a used car and, discussing the shortcomings of the car in front of the seller, slips and calls his son ``honey.'' The lives these fictions evoke are not large, but they are not particularly neat, either.

Instead, the stories work with the idea that life is about containing disaster. A poet traveling in Wales is kissed on a train, but she never consummates the extramarital relationship that presents itself. A down-and-out man wakes up one day and decides to spend the day carrying a gun, intent on making something happen. We trace his day, waiting for the explosion that must come but does not.

The quality of returning, figuratively and literally, is one of the most intriguing aspects of this collection. In two of the stories - ``Prowler'' and ``James Was Here'' - characters return to familiar territory: In each, men sneak into the houses of the women they have lost, only to touch and feel the things they no longer possess, wondering what, if anything, they can reclaim.

Tallent also revisits characters from previous fictions whose lives have changed, but not evolved. Several stories return to Hart, a mathematics professor; his second wife, Caro; and Kevin, Hart's son from his first marriage. The development of their lives through these stories extends beyond mere accretion of detail. Larger forces are discernible, and the presence of these global shifts announces the stories as more significant. The intrusion of history - and of history being made - puts new demands on the stories, and they are all the better for it.

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