Compassion, Surprise Shape Work Of Two Veteran Storytellers

IT is perhaps much too obvious to say that what a novel does to a reader depends on what the reader brings to the novel. In this instance, Alice Munro's short stories, collected in ``Open Secrets,'' are linked in time and place in Canada and become novel-like because of her ample ability to congeal the stories into a remarkable whole.

Munro's seven other works, all celebrated for their steady but cumulative power, have the hallmark of surprise, of creating such sharp twists in the lives of seemingly ordinary women and men that her fiction comes loaded with important, timeless questions hiding in the narrative. The critics who follow contemporary fiction are united on this.

On one level, Munro offers readers a fictional world rooted somewhat in a cross between Thornton Wilder's ``Our Town,'' and Raymond Carver's haunting tales of saddened, life-weary people unable to comprehend what went wrong. But Munro seems initially stuck in a kind of marshaling of old-fashioned attitudes about men and women in many of these stories. Depending largely on one's generational conditioning, a reader accepts or argues with the degree of artifice and plausibility here.

Munro's stories, all previously published, are rooted in a generation somewhere in the late 1930s and early '40s. Her women in particular seem to be always planning subterfuges and weighing their own or others' marriage possibilities. All this in deference to some lonely, oddball men who are curiously one dimensional.

Bea Doud, for instance, in ``Vandals'' connects with Ladner, a dark, somewhat reclusive taxidermist who lives outside of town on a self-made nature preserve. Bea, already seeing a compulsively sociable man, is drawn instead to Ladner's ``fierce dog'' quality. She moves in with him. ``It seemed that she had to be cured of all her froth and vanity and all her old notions of love,'' Munro writes.

In essence, this and other pairings in other stories form the preface for the sudden turns that happen so surprisingly in these brilliant narratives. In ``Vandals'' the ending is totally unexpected, yet within the universe that shaped it, Munro lets the pieces fall where they fit - creating a story to ponder and remember.

Her ability to infuse sharp significance and meaning in these small-town lives, and in these few pages, is done with the skill of someone striking a flint and never missing. Her characters struggle with good and evil in themselves when it is not so simple to identify or resist. Privately, her women long to know themselves, or they give up on the task for cultural and social reasons and learn to live with accommodation.

Despite the occasional melodramatic tone of the pairings, Munro is one of the most gifted writers at work today. She hones the structures of her stories so deftly that the 34-page-long ``Vandals,'' for instance, ranges over a lifetime. Virtuosity, elemental command, incisive like a diamond, remarkable: All these descriptions fit Alice Munro.

THE last part of Wendell Berry's new book, ``Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot And His Wife, Miss Minnie, Nee Quinch,'' is worth the price of admission. His other books, all sparkling fiction told from his beloved Port William, Ky., have established Berry as the master of earthy country living seen through the eyes of laconic farmers. Berry makes his stories shine with meaning and warmth, warts and all.

In ``Watch with Me,'' the final story in this book, Nightlife Hample, a man who ``don't fit the hole that was bored for him,'' borrows a rifle in such a manner that those around him feel he is about to do harm to himself or possibly someone else. He starts out on a slow walk over hill and dale, clutching the rifle, as a cluster of concerned, peaceful farmers follow him at a distance.

Partly a rollicking good story and partly a low-key spiritual metaphor, the tale is not so much a chase as it is a quest. The men follow Hample all day. They lose track of him at night. Hungry, and a little scared that the dazed Hample might shoot them at night, the men huddle around a fire and fall asleep.

In the gray of morning, Hample shocks them awake. ``Couldn't you stay awake?'' he asks them, waving the rifle, a little miffed that they fell asleep.

They follow him again for hours until a pouring rain and miscommunications lead them all into a small barn where Hample enters last. They stare at each other across the tension. Hample, still holding the gun, says, ``Brethren, let us stand and sing.''

They all stand and sing until Berry crafts a marvelous ending with a chicken, a Bible passage from Matthew 18:12, and lots of compassion. This is a story to be read aloud in front of a fire.

The first part of the book is the story of Tol Proudfoot and his bride of a lifetime, Miss Minnie. Occasionally it breaks free of stereotypical country-couple-live-a-gosh-darned-good-life intonation. Give Berry credit for the courage to reaffirm the values of yore. But it is the story of Nightlife Hample that carries the delight of ennobling humanity at its best.

* David Holmstrom is on the Monitor staff.

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