In his most famous novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” Evan S. Connell captured with hair-curling accuracy the mind-set of a 1930s matron trapped in upper-middle-class Midwestern America. Connell saddled his character, India Bridge, with a name that made her uncomfortable with its suggestion of an exotic world beyond Kansas City.
Many of the 22 stories in Connell’s career-spanning new collection, Lost in Uttar Pradesh, are about the rub between people confined to small lives versus wanderers who explore the expansive richness of the world at large. Connell’s titles can be off-puttingly abstruse, but the stories themselves, most of which have been previously published and anthologized, are accessible. They feature a wealth of detail and leisurely pace uncommon in contemporary fiction.
Two of the best, “The Walls of Ávila” and “The Palace of the Moorish Kings,” concern J.D., “One of those uncommon men who follow dim trails around the world hunting a fulfillment they couldn’t find at home.”
J.D. visits his hometown after 10 years, regaling his rooted high school friends with tales of far-off lands, causing them to question the ordinariness of their lives. Connell’s unnamed narrator comments, “Often we wondered why he chose to live as he did, floating here and there like a leaf on the pond.” One of J.D.’s old buddies, now a doctor, notes that J.D. “is Don Quixote ... without a lance, an opponent, or an ideal,” and that he “lived as the rest of us dreamt of living, which is not easy for us to accept.”
Connell acknowledges in his foreword that another recurrent character, 40-year-old Muhlbach – “indestructible, a veritable storm cellar of a man”– is his “stuffy replica of Dr. Cornelius,” inspired by Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.”
Some men, it seems, are not cut out for adventure – and this fascinates Connell. In “St. Augustine’s Pigeon,” which gave Connell’s 1982 collection its title, prematurely widowed Muhlbach knows that his “spirit is suffocating” and his “senses are withering ... exiled from delight.”
Yet a night pursuing pleasure turns out to be a series of small disasters, including a stolen wallet. As Muhlbach observes, “You can go a long way to hell with little steps.” When a pigeon overhead releases “liquescent thunder against his hat,” it’s the last straw for poor Muhlbach. He realizes he has exceeded “the limits set for my nature.”
Fans of Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels will appreciate his incisive new stories about Proctor Bemis and his wife, Marguerite. Bemis is a well-to-do retired financial CEO who has become alarmed about the “ethical decay” of America.
“Back to the Stone Age, Mr. Bemis thought. LeMay chomping a cigar. Napalm. Calley. What’s happened to us? What have we become? Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin – would they recognize their country?”
In “Election Eve,” Bemis’s moral outrage explodes in a rant at his mostly Republican neighbors during an election night party – to the mortification of his wife. Marguerite delivers a conservative counter-tirade in “Mrs. Proctor Bemis.”
As in the Bridge novels, Connell deftly captures their voices and juxtaposes their points of view, interspersing their political discussions with inane headlines from the newspapers Mr. Bemis is forever reading and homely comments about their butcher’s prime rib.
Another traveler who turns up in more than one story is Uncle Gates, an emeritus professor of history and literature from Illinois. In “Nan Madol,” his nephew, charged with entertaining him when he comes through San Francisco on his way back from the South Seas, worries about taxing the old man but soon learns that Uncle Gates’s zest for new experience probably exceeds his own.
In the book’s title story, “Lost in Uttar Pradesh,” William sees his uncle at his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary back in Kansas City. Now 80, tipsy Uncle Gates rambles on about long-past adventures in India.
He also admonishes his nephew, “William, you should manage a peek at the world. You are a stick-in-the-mud.” The news of Uncle Gates’s death a few months later is mitigated for William by his recollection of the old man’s satisfied pronouncement: “I have met the elephant with a ruby on its forehead.”
Connell makes it clear in these wide-ranging stories just how important he feels it is to “manage a peek at the world” and meet “the elephant with a ruby on its forehead.”
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent contributor to the Monitor’s Book section.