PACKAGES by Richard Stern

PACKAGES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Eleven stories by the author of Golk, Other Men's Daughters, and Natural Shocks--most of them stylishly compressed, tolerably sentimental, yet not-quite-satisfying tales of epiphany or taking-stock on a life. An unhappy Middle-American family man turns 50, teeters on breakup, but ends up soldiering on (his disappointed wife: ""And may the next fifty years see you try harder""). A terrifically successful Chicago real-estate woman puts two kids through college but winds up herself esssentially alone, ""without ideal address."" An American student/poet in Rome throws aside her constraining Catholic ""Spell-man Scholarship""--fed up with a ""megalomaniacal city of caesars, nulls and suckers."" Stern takes on all these characters with shrewd, hard-working professionalism; but he doesn't really seem to have gotten to know them very well on such short notice--a problem that's most damaging in ""Double Charley,"" which features the uneasy relationship between a pair of big but fading song-writers (whose creative collaboration here hasn't a shred of verisimilitude). More authoritative and relaxed, then, are the pieces with academic backgrounds or personalities (Stern is a professor at the University of Chicago): a bitterly jobless academic, married to an assistant-prof, makes a play for one of his wife's colleagues (""It was WE--Woman's Era--in the universities"") and winds up rescuing her minister husband from a disastrous preaching debut; a grad-student couple in Java goes through heavy weather (""She was in the jungle. . . . The only ax she had was the knowledge she was in trouble""); plus frankly wistful, diary-like musings from a middle-aged professor (remembering students) and a minor poet (reading his marl from a touchingly oddball fan). But the best story here has a first-person impact of a much more fundamental sort: ""Packages"" is the narrator's terse account of his mother's cancer death and his father's senility; and though it's slightly overwrought (in its understated way) and undermined by the inclusion of another, sketchier treatment of the same material elsewhere in this collection, the story succeeds in projecting the ragged interplay of human reactions--the narrator's attempts to be logical, adult, practical. . . while some part of him is howling. Uneven but worthy work, then--from an intelligent, witty, and thoughtful writer whose short fiction tends to be a bit short on spontaneity and conviction.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 1980
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan