Murray Bail, Author . FSG $18 (160p) ISBN 978-0-374-11827-3

A host of distinctive, genuine characters, all at the mercy of life's folly and its slapdash potential, parade through Australian writer Bail's unconventional new collection of 14 short stories. Devoid of any kind of unifying theme, the volume includes several tales that play out as bizarre, abstract vignettes, while others are stunningly vivid and affecting, as in the standout opening story "The Seduction of My Sister." In it, a boy who feels that his younger sister is a terrible pest concocts an increasingly dangerous outdoor game with a new neighbor. Lobbing progressively larger household items back and forth over the rooftops makes for hours of amusement, until his sister poses the ultimate dare. The vacuum of smalltown life may have gotten the better of Sid in "Life of the Party." Perched high and dry in his son's tree house, Sid observes as neighbors and friends congregate drunkenly in his backyard for a barbecue he never bothers to host. In "Huebler," a man embarks on the "strange ambitious task" of photographing every living person—and cataloguing each in a uniquely identifying category, i.e., "At least one person who may outlive art." In the title story, middle-aged Eric Banerjee, a married Adelaide piano tuner, is drafted in 1943 and sent to Australia's Northern Territory. After surmounting some initial shyness, he bonds with the other men in his troop, conceding that these are indeed "his happiest days." Bail (Homesickness) is at his strongest when writing from the shadowy corners of suburbia, much like A.M. Homes. The book's organizational structure suffers from a jarring irregularity, and a few entries, though they demonstrate the author's love of all things peculiar, seem thrown in as afterthoughts. Still, this is an illuminating, dexterously written collection, wildly uneven but uniformly potent. (May)

Reviewed on: 03/11/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
Genre: Fiction
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