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The Baltimore Sun

Throw Like a Girl

By Jean Thompson

Simon & Schuster / 304 pages / $13

The anti-heroines in Jean Thompson's latest story collection, Throw Like a Girl, are spiteful, catty, manipulative and passively aggressive. They have few redemptive qualities except for, perhaps, their ability to deliver sparkling one-liners.

Here's one: "You start out being married together and you end up being married apart." Here's another: "I'd grown used to stepping over and around him [her husband] the way you might a large dog." Nominated for a National Book Award for her 1999 book of short stories, Who Do You Love, Thompson writes a kind of chick-lit which is suffused with a dark irony. Using a flippant, seemingly light-hearted tone, she sets the stage for high drama: disappointment at best, tragedy at worst. Her minimalist style explores a bleak world inhabited by losers -- usually lower-middle-class females from the Midwest, who are lonely and unhappy and feel marginalized. The characters in Throw Like a Girl are no exception.

Generally, the 12 stories in the collection take place as middle-aged narrators look back to a time in their late teens and early twenties, when they wanted excitement at any cost. Born in the 1940s and 50s, most of them are growing old without growing up, and they're wondering whether they "should have lived a different life. A bigger life."

The two stories with adolescent narrators are less satisfying. The characters don't ring true, and the plot lines are a strange cross between mature and young adult lit. In one, a 16-year-old girl becomes infatuated with the man who kills her parents. In another, a prank backfires on a 12-year-old girl who kills her neighbor.

The other less-than-satisfying story -- about two woodenly depicted matriarchs in a pie business -- is too facile. Like a balloon with a slow leak, the narrative loses its dramatic punch as it degenerates into word play, punning the notion of "easy as pie." Thompson excels at puns, apt rejoinders and repartee to the extent that her witty diction threatens to overpower her plots. She mercilessly toys with her characters -- one woman whose doglike devotion gets her into trouble is called Mrs. Colley. Thompson even inserts secret allusions -- one woman mimics Molly Bloom's "Yes, yes, yes."

Thompson's women are usually clever but only occasionally insightful, as when they say things like "He [a former boyfriend] was like having the flu. You forget what it's like to be well." They don't often examine their feelings, but when they do, they catch your attention, as in "I covered my ears so I wouldn't have to hear the exact moment when he wasn't there anymore." The unnamed narrator of "The Woman Taken in Adultery" wants a diversion and so enrolls in a community college where she studies Rembrandt's painting featuring an adulteress. She begins an affair because her husband never seems to notice what's going on. But then, he does. At story's end, wife, husband, paramour and painting come together in a surprising, if somehow, predictable conclusion. Thompson's masterful use of first-person narration brings the character alive.

In "Lost," a woman (also unnamed) looks back to a time when she became involved with the wrong boy. In her twenties, she "wanted what I wanted when I wanted it," only to learn she couldn't always take what she wanted. The object of her desire is somebody else's boyfriend. But because Thompson has told the story from inside the narrator's head, the character evokes sympathy. Her devil-may-care attitude only heightens the story's effect.

With its more fully-realized narrator, "The Family Barcus" is arguably the best of this collection. Cindy Barcus remembers her father saying, "Don't make me pull this car over." The family is on the way to Presbyterian Sunday services, and her seven-year-old brother is complaining about going to church. Their father responds by saying that Jesus loved people so much that he died on the cross, "and how do you think he'd feel if you didn't love him back?" To which the boy replies, "Well, nobody asked him to." Spoken by a kid, the comment isn't meant to be taken too seriously. Or is it? When the story ends, the characters (to say nothing of readers) know how it feels to be hit in the solar plexus.

Living on a fine line between being caricatures and existing as fully developed characters, Thompson's protagonists are a sorry bunch. They embody everything one detests about the fair sex. They're, as Thompson puts it, "hugely pissed, rancid with ill will towards the universe. If she were a dog, she'd bite." Yet after a few pages, most of the characters seem like old acquaintances. That's not because they're likable when you get to know them. It's because Thompson, at her best, enhances her stories with bright fast-moving language, which is both off-putting and oddly beguiling.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.

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