Under Covers

Dusting off Jackets

It's tempting, in writing about the collection of bite-sized short stories, Moses Supposes by Ellen Currie (Scribner, $10 paper), to say something about the black humor of the Irish, the particularly Gaelic way of salting gaiety with tears, or some other poetic nonsense like that. And I started to - but then it struck me all as a load, if you know what I mean. In the first place, I've only met one Irish person in my life, and she was rather blatantly cheery. Besides, the characters in Moses Supposes are often Irish-American transplants and their old-country roots, but human beings are what concern Currie. To walk into Ellen Currie's world is to find yourself in the realm of the all-too human. Currie's characters could all use some training in dispute resolution: they're just not very nice. In "Old Hag, You Have Killed Me," a family gathers acrimoniously at the hospital to debate whether or not their mother really stabbed their father; in "The Solution to Canned Peas" a divorced couple, unable to abandon either suspicion or love, discuss the possibility that their daughter may be planning to murder her mother; "Slim Young Woman in No Distress" portrays the anger of a precocious (and somewhat twisted) child at his mother's divorce. But it's not enough to describe Currie's characters as being talk-show fodder, although they'd be pretty interesting on Oprah. Currie sets her stories in small spaces, where the evidence of her characters' banality is inescapable even to them.

What in the hands of another writer might become sudsy, angst-ridden drama or a pale imitation of James Joyce, Currie turns into unique human pathos and comedy - and somehow, there isn't anything more moving than to see these people placed face-to-face with the smallness of their respective existence. You laugh because, dammit, it hurts. Her writing is spare and sharp-edged, with shimmering touches of poetry, and she rests her characterization on small but telling details instead of unwieldy exposition - exposition, I imagine, would be out of place in an Ellen Currie story. These are stories about the strange things that we do for love, actions that by their own natures defy explanation.

The stories in Moses Supposes have been described as "snapshots," which is a very effective description of these vivid tableaux. But Moses Supposes reminds me of nothing so much as shadowboxes. Shadowboxes, for most of us, are those little craftsy things third-graders make out of shoebox lids, paper butterflies, cotton balls, and what-not. They have the appeal of portraying three dimensions instead of two in a small space. Ellen Currie's shadowboxes eschew cottonball clouds and paper butterflies for such memorable items as a woman's bracelets, a homemade noose, a child's toy tiger, a battered, spiral-bound notebook. And in the back of her boxes she places mirrors, polished and highly reflective. Those mirrors are the final touch, the coup de grace that makes each story in Moses Supposes linger enigmatically in the mind.

- Barbara Strickland

Murder mysteries frequently function as a barometer of national discontent - the better ones get there ahead of the crowd. That may be Dashiell Hammett's left-of-center legacy, a storyline on which hangs society's dirty laundry and consumptive values. But the venerable genre has long since moved from the brooding noir city and shuffled off to the 'burbs and yuppie fast-money centers. In fact, today's hapless hero is most often not a P.I. and, in any case, too befuddled by the shopping mall of horrors to go about his or her work with an over-arching sense of coolness. Who needs San Francisco in the Twenties? Sleazy status is franchised daily on television.

Aspen, Colorado is the setting of Into Thin Air by Thomas Zigal (Delacorte Press, $19.95, hard). Ex-hippie Sheriff Kurt Muller trips over a string of murders in a town where local boys make bad and the FBI Ruby Ridges an enclave of small-time Mexican kitchen staff pot pushers. Before long, Muller is implicated by an arrogant FBI agent who epitomizes the hoary compartmentalized morality and bureaucratic sadism that is the drug war. All of Zigal's well-drawn characters evoke the anger, disgust, and sympathy of the reader which makes a plot involving mounting body counts, celebrity freaks, and Argentinian "Dirty War" politics believable.

Into Thin Air is also a melting sand castle of nostalgia - about development-ravaged Aspen, about the collapse of family and friendship, about idealism sold for a quicker deal. FBI, coke-pushing football star, terrorist on the lam - all live up to the bad smell of today's sneering cynical discourse and the politics of personal domination for its own sake. It's a low-hanging cloud which engulfs us all in a showy cock-strut of spectacular impotence. While some who move in Muller's milieu can kill, and the sheriff dodges many attempts, what can he do about a more powerful weapon: the language of super confidence, of degradation, of the kow-down? Can we expect his responses to fare any better than our own? No one gets out of this untarnished and some of the unlikeliest survive. Though complicated, the plot of Zigal's first mystery is as tight as a roadster on a mountain grade and when you've reached the end there's still enough horsepower for the good guys to beat a retreat to a land that never-never was. The author is writing his second. Quickly, I hope.

From Aspen we move to Charlotte, the setting for Jody Jaffe's Horse of a Different Killer (Fawcett Columbine, $21 hard). Nattie Gold, fashion writer for the Commercial Appeal, teams up with Henry Goode, that daily's investigative reporter, to search out the truth behind the mutual destruction of a high-dollar hunter horse and its detested trainer, Wally. The slaughter in the stall looks like equuscide gone awry, but it's not: another trainer, the embittered ex-boyfriend of Wally, is suspected of staging the bloody affair; but neither Gold, Goode, nor Detective Tony Odom are happy with that symmetry. So the search begins. Along the way, Gold receives threats telling her to lay off the assignment. It is good advice for the novel.

In real life, Jaffe spent 10 years as a feature writer for the Charlotte Observer. At times, the first-person narrative reads like a collection of breezy columns and essays with almost-clever metaphors and sort of cute one-liners. Even dialogue can resemble narrative. Both, however, fail to consistently provide the connective tissue necessary for breaks in time and space. (I found myself running over and backing up to find the border between North and South Carolina.) The spare story line is loaded up with lots of arcane hunter culture practice and Yiddish vs. Southern expressionism. But the horse talk has little bearing on the story and with few ironies, gaffes of consequence, or even a "say what?," the potential for linguistic amusement and conflict is lost. What's left is a flat-line theme of figurines on a mantel, revisited from time to time.

The novel is populated by relatively few main characters and even fewer suspects. Motives of insurance fraud, blackmail, and jealousy are aired well in advance, so it is no surprise when the real culprit is revealed. But climactic surprise in mysteries comes less from sleight of hand than from reader involvement with character.

Perhaps the greatest problem with Horse is that there is little action or sense of action until well after the half-way point. You must content yourself with Jaffe's description of hunter life and her effective assay of TQM and "civic journalism" which infest daily papers everywhere. A novel along those lines would be both timely and fascinating.

- Stephen McGuire

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