A German Picturesque

Jason Schwartz, Author Knopf Publishing Group $21 (144p) ISBN 978-0-679-44332-2
Reading the 21 runelike stories that comprise Schwartz's debut collection is a bit like eavesdropping: you may not follow the conversation, but you'll certainly overhear something interesting. In these fragmentary, oblique vignettes, unnamed narrators mention mostly unnamed characters, and the relationships among the various theys, shes and hes are often unspecified. Replacing the structure of narrative are some of the pleasures of poetry: cadence, precise and suggestive details. Certain words--""curl,"" ""crease,"" ""hobble""--are almost fondled throughout. Others, such as ""veng,"" ""dath"" and ""pendill,"" to say nothing of ""the rall is toof,"" seem to be products of Schwartz's imagination. Grouped loosely around the themes of ancestors, boyhood and history, nearly all of these fictions, even those concerning an American childhood, evoke distant times and places, and often the narrators assume the manner of the historian, calling attention to artifacts (coins, manifests, tunics) and reminding us that the past can only be surmised. The title story opens: ""The goblet, to begin with."" It continues with descriptions of a flag, a confession, a will, a map. The heart of the tale lies in oblique references to a murder in an earlier century, and the possible massacre of a family. In the mysteriously titled ""Killies,"" maiden sisters holiday too peacefully in Spain. ""A Grammar"" records the sensations of a child in a sickroom. Often the quotidian surface of these stories is broken by a tragedy conveyed as an aside. Clearly this collection is not for those who want a take-charge narrator, but it may intrigue those who prefer their fiction through a glass darkly. (July)
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
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