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A first novel about a group of down-and-out but magically-realistic characters: partly a surreal rendition of Winesburg Ohio and partly a novelty item that never quite finds its rhythm, despite several powerful or effectively quirky moments. ""Members of Limestone's city council were faced with the daily embarrassment of having to step over drunks and homeless children on their way to work."" Sterns juxtaposes such capsule sketches of her fictional city's history, architecture, and so forth with the continuing stories of Midnight Cowboy, Frank, Savage, Gonzino Bay, Maxine, Preacher, and a number of other such characters. There is not a story as such but, instead, variations on situations. Midnight Cowboy, for instance, with water on his brain, is 30 years old. Alone, he listens to the walls of his apartment (""The ghosts of Cowboy's childhood lodged amid the cracks in the plaster"") and searches for Lily, his mother, long dead. That doesn't matter, though, because angels and ghosts are as likely to show up in these pages as real people, and that sense of anything-can-happen improvisation finally wears a little thin. Frank is a perpetual outpatient of the Limestone Psychiatric Hospital who often claims he's pregnant: ""He was feeling the baby move inside of him. He was thinking of names."" The narrative reaches a kind of pathos with Midnight Cowboy, crippled and helpless, frequently the victim of abuse; and it stretches toward fabulism when Gonzino Bay, an aging acrobat, navigates city roofs: ""Even sleepwalking he preferred the spaces where angels dangled their toes."" Often, though, the novel hovers between styles and thus lacks the delicate facility of, say, a Carol Shields. Even so, Sterns takes hold of a marvelous idea and, despite her uneven execution, marks herself as an interesting and talented voice willing to try something new.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Pantheon