Highsmith, Gavell, Mason, Messud


Texas has produced more than its share of commanding female storytellers, from Katherine Anne Porter to Mary Karr. The list would be incomplete without Patricia Highsmith, the Fort Worth-born author of 21 novels of suspense including Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955). In addition to literary thrillers, Highsmith -- who died in 1995 -- also wrote seven collections of short fiction, five of which are now reprinted in an imposing volume called The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith (Norton, 724 pages, $27.95).

Slowly building in psychological complexity, the book begins with a series of tales called "The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder," in which abused animals -- a zoo elephant, a truffle pig, some sinister hamsters -- strike back against their owners. Next come "Little Tales of Misogyny," which are brief, cruel sketches of women in various stereotypical roles such as "The Breeder" and "The Silent Mother-in-Law."

But the collection really begins to soar in the stories that follow. They are deeply unsettling, coolly sophisticated studies of curdled loneliness and unchecked appetites in a world of Hobbesian insensitivity. Elegant and implacable, Highsmith's fiction brings a shivery shadow of noir into every sunny corner of modern life.

Mary Ladd Gavell is another Texas-born author who, before she died in 1967, wrote a number of distinguished short stories, unpublished during her lifetime. They are now available in a collection entitled I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly (Random House, 220 pages, $21.95).

Gavell worked as the managing editor of Psychiatry magazine and, after her death at age 47, her colleagues published her story "The Rotifer" as a tribute to her. "The Rotifer" was included in Best American Short Stories of 1967 and it went on to be selected by John Updike for Best American Short Stories of the Century in 2000.

It's not hard to see what attracted Updike's attention to Gavell, whose tales are funny and dire meditations on the incalculable emotional distance between even the most inextricably connected people.

The finest story here is "The Swing," in which an elderly woman, mourning the lost intimacy she once shared with her now-grown son, encounters an incarnation of him as a small boy on the abandoned swing in her backyard. There is solid, old-fashioned joy and heartbreak in this tale, as in all of Gavell's domestic dramas, set vividly among south-Texas cotton-farming communities like the one into which she was born in 1919.

How unfortunate that Gavell never enjoyed any acclaim during her lifetime, in contrast with another Southern female storyteller, Bobbie Ann Mason, who has perhaps enjoyed too much. Mason is the award-winning, best-selling Kentucky author of In Country, Feather Crowns and Shiloh and Other Stories, whose reputation rests on a deadly accurate ear for colloquial dialogue and an eye for down-home descriptions.

Her new collection, Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (Random House, 224 pages, $22.95), is an anemic recycling of many of her familiar settings and situations. "With Jazz," "The Funeral Side," and "Night Flight" all feature 40-ish women who are back in Kentucky after bad-luck episodes with no-good men.

Too many of Mason's stories trail off into a vague, irrelevant detail -- yellow basketball shoes, a large owl -- that's supposed to represent a transcendent moment but never does. Only in "Tobrah," where a love-hungry woman in her mid-40s inherits a 5-year-old half-sister, does Mason recapture some of her former acuity.

The author of two mesmerizing novels, When the World Was Steady and The Last Life, Claire Messud weighs in this month with a pair of novellas published in a volume called The Hunters (Harcourt, 181 pages, $23). The first, coyly titled "A Simple Tale," shows how very many pasts one lifetime can contain, buried like cities on top of one another. Maria Poniatowski was born in the Ukraine and survived a series of German labor camps during World War II. At the war's end she meets her Polish husband, Lev, and they relocate to Canada with their baby son.

Over years spent working as a cleaning woman, Maria endures the death of her husband and her son's marriage to a slatternly wife. Messud layers this long story about the weight of history and the crush of loneliness with the kind of subtlety and patience that recalls the finest work of Alice Munro.

Messud's second novella, however, is a far more self-conscious bit of literary game-playing. "The Hunters" involves the preoccupations of a prissy, unlikable narrator whose name and gender are never mentioned. Stuck in a monotonous London summer, researching a book about death, the narrator becomes obsessed with an ill-kempt downstairs neighbor woman who cares for terminally ill people. Is this woman killing her patients? Why is she so determined to seek the narrator's friendship?

With its hints of Poe, Nabokov and James' "The Aspern Papers," this is a drab, antiseptic tale with little life of its own.

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a master of Japanese fiction whose major novels are available in English but whose equally fine short stories have gone mostly untranslated. Now, six of his erotic, eccentric stories have been translated by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy and collected in The Gourmet Club (Kodansha International, 240 pages, $24).

Tanizaki's precise sensuality glitters in "The Children," a tale about sadomasochism among four Tokyo schoolchildren, and in "The Secret," in which a man dressed in women's clothing conducts a mysterious sexual affair. "The Two Acolytes" is a fable about the worldly temptation of two young Buddhist monks in medieval Kyoto, while the title story illustrates the dangers of excessive gluttony. These are dazzling stories, spanning 45 years of a remarkable literary career.

Samrat Upadhyay is a young author from Kathmandu who bills himself as the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West. His new book, Arresting God in Kathmandu (Mariner Books, 191 pages, $12), contains nine stories written with more aplomb than many veterans.

"The Good Shopkeeper" features a married, middle-class Kathmandu accountant whose humiliation upon losing his job nudges him into an affair with a lower-class servant. "The Limping Bride," about an alcoholic ne'er-do-well whose father forces him to marry a crippled girl, then falls in love with her himself, is full of sex and shame; while the best story here, "Deepak Misra's Secretary," tracks the disintegration of a marriage between a Nepali man and his American wife. Upadhyay's writing is complex and delicate, and full of grown-up subjects. Let's hope to see a novel from him before too long.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

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