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Agee's first story-collection--a tour through the Farm Belt--is sometimes haunting and lyrical, an echo of Sherwood Anderson-genteel, mildly antiromantic and moody. There are also pieces--especially the very short ones--that have not quite made their way from poetic description to story. The best here are suggestive of life transformations that happen too quickly or too quietly for much brouhaha. ""What the Fall Brings"" effectively dramatizes--from the point-of-view of a high-school classmate--the story of a boy who loses his mind when he sees his beloved state-champion pig roasting on a spit at a town celebration. ""The Dead of July"" is a moody sketch of a season, ""Stiller's Pond"" a haunting reminiscence about the Stiller girl and her unknown boyfriend who drowned and froze. ""Aronson's Orchard"" successfully plays on familiar tales about the sexual proclivities of farmboys--it tells of a wild boy who preys for years on a small town and its environs before finally turning murderous. Meanwhile, several stories are touching but Raymond Carverish: ""Working Iron,"" where the unemployed go ice-fishing; and ""Cousin Taber's,"" about the end of a couple and their land. Other simply don't work: ""Historical Accuracy,"" about a failing marriage punctuated by rituals of toenail-clipping and panty thefts, is too brittle and distant; ""A Pleasant Story,"" about a woman whose garden grows a knife tree, is finally frivolous; ""The Story of the Belt,"" a brief study of a battered family, is too expository; and ""The Man of Sorrows,"" concerning an obsessive man and his telephone, is too gimmicky. The most effective stories tell about the hard, damaged faces of the Midwest in a distinctive voice, while the rest are either convincing but slight, derivative or sketchy.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1989
Publisher: Gibbs-Smith