THERE ARE three longish stories in Michael Kenyon's Pinocchio's Wife; taken together they paint the picture of a writer who cares about language and its rhythms, and is interested in finding new ways of depicting the slides between reality and unreality that make up human consciousness.
"Adult" is a story of immaturity and moral bankruptcy. Its narrator, Paul, is a leech: a 27-year-old gay man who doesn't work but lives off his partner. "That's the thing that always puts me Off, the training it takes to begin careers," he reflects. He spends his days watching "adult" videos and plotting the seduction of his nephew. And if that isn't enough, his brother has been charged with sexually assaulting one of his swimming students. The brother describes what happened this way: "Everything going along normal and fine, only a little boredom to work out, and wham! Underage, a witness, the cops, I can't believe my luck."
These are not people who live with reality as most of us know it. Things seem possible to them that do not seem possible to us. Kenyon comes up with a fine metaphor for the wish we all have sometimes to roll things back:
Viewing a tape backward transposes cause and effect, but the rhythms remain. Everyone puts on clothes, cars quickly reverse, vanish to where every damaged thing is once again intact and perfect. Murders undo themselves, weapons reappear, suck back their charges and find the drawer where they seem to belong.
Kenyon's characters reveal themselves gradually. The assumptions we are to make about them are not stated but withheld - we have to work for them - and they are all the more telling for that. The line between reality and unreality is crossed back and forth several times in "The Lighter," a carefully con. figured story about a cop who obsessively pursues his former wife. "He knew where he'd gone wrong," we are told. "But he couldn't face the task of forgetting." Unhappy people are often somewhat crazy people, and it is a craziness based on profound unhappiness that Kenyon is showing us here. Even off duty, the cop can't stop checking licence plates and picking out faces from crowds, but only gradually do we realize that he also cannot turn off another self who pursues and is pursued by criminals. At first we think that these people are really there - his scenes with them make use of people and props from his "real" life - but soon we lose our bearings. We are almost as much off-base as the troubled cop. What we do understand -again, gradually - is that this man is reacting to imaginary dangers while ignoring the very real dangers he is taking his young daughter into. It is no small accomplishment that Kenyon makes this cop seem both normal and very, very strange. As for the title piece: what is one to say about a story that is narrated in part by the Blue Fairy? Especially when one is not quite sure what its 55 pages are all about? The characters include Pinocchio, here part human, part wooden marionette; his wife, the Blue Fairy; and Lampwick, his wife's lover. There are some engaging notions. (A city grows as plants grow, with elevators running up and down in advance of their buildings. Trees run away, leaving their roots behind....) There is a moving episode in which we see a confused old man in a nursing home. There is (perhaps?) an exploration of interdependence in human lives. "Why do we want others in our lives?" Pinocchio asks, and then suggests an answer. "D'you think maybe it's because one gets weary of a single vision of oneself?" A second reading would probably make the whole lollapalooza a lot clearer. Kenyon's stories are not for everyone. They are a little more interested in playing around with the idea of "story" than some readers may be willing to go along with. But those who like the idea of literature as a series of games in which the writer plays against a set of rules of his own invention will find much to admire here. All of the stories in Nights in the Yungas, Stephen Henighan's new short-fiction collection, are set in Central and South America, and all have locales that are rendered with convincing detail. "North to South," one of the book's strongest offerings, is a story about roads not taken and perhaps not take-able. A woman who has dreamed of reaching a world once seen through a bus window at the Mexican border worries that her life is at a standstill, that "maybe from now on life will be simply more rather than different." She feels that she and her husband have "a past they haven't lived up to"; she surveys the modest luxuries of their apartment and thinks:
This is where their trip has gone, whittled away by concessions and compromises. Month by month they have diluted their austere lifestyle. They were saving to travel, but could they deny themselves a television? Should they live in an apartment with nothing on the walls? Did it make sense to sacrifice the present in the name of some ideal future?
Finally they make the trip to South America, and the woman encounters realities that give new meaning to the whole idea of self-preservation. "North to South" is a fine story, long-reaching, and told with indirection and restraint.
Other stories in the book get their power from terseness, compression. The title story is a marvellously vivid account of a brief visit to lowland Bolivia that manages to convince you that it was just like this, this interlude, and that it was unforgettable.
"The Sun of Coricancha" has a great opening sentence: "The rivers in Cuzco run underground now." It goes on to tell, tersely and powerfully, how an Inca court was pillaged by the conquistadores, and how the greatest treasures were lost forever. The voice telling the story is that of one of the Incas.
"Small Exposures" is an effective, understated story that deals with the relationship between two well-born Colombian women, and explores the question of what counts and does not count in polite Colombian society. "Inside," another brief story of great intensity, describes a rushed visit to two North Americans in a South American prison.
Tourists discover not only South America but one another. In one story, the narrator meets two Swedish tourists. "They glanced uncertainly at one another, then relaxed. I was a character: they could laugh with me tonight and laugh at me tomorrow." We meet a phony revolutionary, real war amputees. And so it goes. The stories range widely, both geographically and in subject matter.
Henighan is occasionally over-explicit in his writing, particularly when he is dealing with the emotions. He sometimes fails to trust his reader as much as he might to figure out what is going on. But this is only an occasional failing. When he is at his best, Henighan is a writer who respects his material, and offers us close and convincing observation.