cover image The Angel of the Garden

The Angel of the Garden

Scott Ely. University of Missouri Press, $19.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-8262-1211-5

The eight stories in Ely's plainspoken yet wry new collection (after Overgrown with Love) always return to the conflict between a human need for order and an equal desire for destruction. The characters are Southerners, many of them Vietnam veterans, whose experiences are filtered through memories of wartime horrors. The title story tells of a disabled vet and landscapist (""My garden is not the garden in the Book. It's a brake in the Mississippi Delta"") who falls in love with the daughter of a client but cannot free himself from crippling flashbacks of death in combat. In ""The Professor of Literature,"" a teacher who lost the use of his legs in Vietnam exchanges good grades for trysts with students in his trailer. Ely wisely resists the impulse to make moral judgments about his characters. Other stories float upon the memorable and unquestionable particulars of human neurosis. The DJ in ""Talk Radio"" fixates upon the Hendrix song his wife plays while cheating on him with a visiting Vietnam buddy. In a last line, which may encompass the narrator's self-forgiveness or his simple weariness, he numbly vows: ""I am not going to drive her away. I am going to hang on to her for as long as I can."" Occasionally, the stories skid off the surface of their subject, sidestepping climactic conclusions. Such a moderate approach is often frustrating, diluting the narrative's impact. On the other hand, Ely's unadorned, Carveresque style underscores the collection's unrelenting, sustained honesty. (Mar.)