An Amateur's Guide to the Night By Mary Robison Alfred A. Knopf: 129 pp. $11.95
WHEN TIME magazine writes its annual cover story on the troubles besetting the baby boom generation--soaring divorce rates, disintegration of the nuclear family, alcoholism, mental illness they point to warnings by psychiatrists and sociologists that the consequences of these trends will be "ominous" and "dire" for the children growing up-in these broken homes. And when Mary Robison is not teaching English C at Harvard, she has made it her business to flesh out those troubling statistics in carefully crafted vignettes of family dynamics; what would happen to Holden Caulfield today, if he were in his early twenties.
Robison has been grouped with the bleak, minimalist school of New Yorker writers who have succeeded Updike, Cheever, and Salinger. Though Robison writes the occasional Salingeresque sentence ("One morning I was fixing cinammon toast of something and I had to practically he on the counter to keep from going into a complete faint") such puppyish exaggeration is rare. Like Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme, she casts a cold and detached eye on her characters, and tends to write spare prose about her spare people. People, what's more, who are distanced from their emotions. We see them the outside, largely through dialogue and physical movements. Even when the story is told in the first person. Robison's method relies more on narration of events than reaction to them.
Her locales are often small college towns, her characters often locked in small family struggles Frequently an important member of the family is dead, divorced, or mentally disturbed. A ring of failure circumscribes these individuals they aren't terribly smart or talented, and they have problems which seem so overwhelming that they shut them out, and concentrate on the simpler task of just getting by. "The Nature of Almost Everything" begins. "Tell you at thirty-six my goals are to stay sober and pay off my MasterCard bill."
Because our access to a character's mind is limited to summations and tag lines like the above, we are nudged into hearing now often the people in these stories banter dispiritedly and fail to connect--we must listen to what they say, and how they say it. Much of the dialogue is brilliantly mundane: it has the sour sound of conversations that occur in the kitchen over a half-eaten meal.
But this is not an easy or a pleasant read. What we normally think of as "important events" are only touched on, and no event boasts an emotional spin that makes it stand out from the rest. In "The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute," the troubles of a marriage are explained in one interjection, almost as an afterthought. "Angela was wearing a starched bloused with a new straight skirt--at least, new to Ed--and a string of cultured pearls."
The cheerlessness is relieved by precise, almost finicky writing, and a dark humor that accentuates the drumbeats of disappointment. In "Coach," the father eagerly tries to tell his daughter Daphne that he is, quite possibly, going to be made coach of the college varsity football team--but Daphne passes by him in the doorway.
Coach let her pass. He followed her down the narrow hallway to her bedroom.
"More money." he said. "I'll even be on TV. I'll have my own show on Sundays. And I'll get written up in the press all the time. By real reporters. Hey' Why am I yelling at wood, here?"
Robison's quirky usage also enlivens the stories unexpectedly perfect words pop up like Kleenex in the midst of an unremarkable description. We become reacquainted with the "nose" of a pencil, and the "dish rinser" that one uses to "spritz" the dinner plates. We need these sparks of craft because many of these thirteen stories are so brief as to be almost like SAT exercises in creative writing (write a scene between two or three closely related characters, starting in the middle. Be sure to include subtle details to establish time, place, and motivation. Stop after you have finished work on this section. Do not go on to any other section.)
BUT THE BEST of Robison's stories, the ones that remain in memory like "Coach" and "The Wellman Twins," present situations filled with incidental pleasures and characters who find purpose beyond the bare outlines of their lives. In "The Wellman Twins," the twins Bluey and Greer have shared a game since childhood, called "getting bold." It is supposed to be a private covenant for a session of secrets and truth-telling, but they use the opportunity to regale each other with outrageous lies--tall tales which gradually spiral down to a compact center of truth. Bluey has been writing letters to a girl named Ivy, and hiding them in loose leaf binder. His sister Greer begins getting bold by revealing that she has read all the letters. Bluey responds that "Ivy's probably got maybe a brain tumor or a limbic disorder. She thinks her brother had something to do with killing Lennon." And so they continue, countering with brilliant improvisations, until the inventive defenses are laid bare.
In a less hopeful story, "Smart," the main character says flatly: "It's just that people, they don't ever do what they don't want to do. And they can't ever be what they aren't already." But in "The Wellman Twins," Robison shows us a less determined reality, one that can be altered by the imagination perhaps. Bluey confesses at last that the letters:
Aren't to anybody really. Or they're to every girl. Only I don't deeply know any other girl. They're to a fantasy I have in my brain."
"Aw, Bluey, wait awhile," Greer said. "Lots of things could change for you. It doesn't seem like it, but they've got to, don't they?" Greer said. "Don't they?"
Subdued hope is the most ebullient of Robison's emotional promises, but her restrained wit and craftsman's ear for dialogue make An Amateur's Guide to the Night a quiet treat. It doen't light up new arenas of expression, but it does help establish her as a master of the minister and a portraitist of the age.