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Eleven stories of verbal flash and pyrotechnic drive but with less satisfying results beneath the surface. By the author of The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, which won the 1981 St. Lawrence Award. Fearless and omniverous in their stylistic reach, these stories too often seem to be conceived more of energy and dash than of durable substance. In ""The Eldest of Things,"" a literature professor has a growing cocaine habit and loses his girlfriend; this commonplace premise is fanned to a glow by an unrelenting bellows of words and more words: ""Mozer spoke of the circumfluous liquids, calm upon which the World is built, the metaphorical jasper, the unmixed fire, the goo and slop, the pneuma of the Stoics."" Striving for a Robert Coover-esque intensity of satire, Abbott too often fails to rise above the flashing surface of his own prose, and at other times falls into an unexplored banality that poses as thoughtfulness. ""We Get Smashed and Our Endings Are Swift"" is the story of two soldiers trained as elite assassins; the horror-descriptions, though, carry the story along as an end in themselves, replacing what ought to reveal itself of the satirist's higher reach: ""Oh, I did love the murder: the life-affirming Aaaarrrgghhh!' the dying made when they spied the vast What-Not opening to greet them."" What is the alternative to such madness-violence? ""Stand in a Row and Learn,"" another army story, suggests only a dewy-eyed ignorance-as-bliss: the narrator's apotheosis takes him to ""that place, free of threat and worry, where, in the company of pride and ignorance, we could live handsome and free forever."" Highly ambitious in a number of literary ways, these are stories of undeniable flash and sweep constructed on a foundation of the too-often jejune: an intellectual place where woman is merely a ""fully realized female: love that had hair and skirt and hot parts to cling to,"" and where, as if the message is that nothing mattered much in the end, ""death does not hurt, not at all"" (""This Creature Man""). In sum: less at the core than meets the eye.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
Publisher: Algonquin