THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE RUSSIAN And Other Stories by Willis Johnson


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In the mood of Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of stories about a colony of aging Russian ÉmigrÉs who have come to live out their lives in, of all places, a backwoods town in Maine. The town's only ballerina (she once saw Pavlova) is unappreciated by her small and philistine audience (""The Great Valentinova""). A poverty-stricken old priest imagines netting sturgeon in the fiver and supplying caviar for all (""The Ice Fish""). And a young priest, in a story filled with Hemingway symbolism and dialogue, finds that his faith is weak when he attends the death of an old man (""Prayer for the Dying""). Little in these stories is either fresh or new; their pleasures are the pleasures of the 19th-century realist masters or the American chroniclers--Cather, Anderson--of small-town lives. In the title story, the author turns with embarrassing clumsiness to Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor in a creaking tale of rural thwarted sexuality. Observed details, though, are what these pieces rely on for the life they do possess--frost on windowpanes, glowing woodstoves, icons and candles in the church, the bottle of vodka hidden in the kitchen. ""Sarajevo"" becomes affecting when an old married couple are driven apart by the confession of an adultery from many decades before, in a time of war. And ""The Last Song of Exile,"" in spite of its many debts, achieves a briefly moving version of the simple man who has been exiled from his homeland by cruelty and war. A volume that is painfully unoriginal in any literary way; but that asks forgiveness for that deep flaw by its rendering, with occasional poignancy, of private moments in lives governed by nostalgia, yearning, and loss.

Pub Date: March 12th, 1986
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich