Hawaiian Cowboys

John Yau, Author Black Sparrow Press $15.95 (169p) ISBN 978-0-87685-956-8

The world that prolific poet, art critic and man-about-New York Yau (Crossing Canal Street) creates in his first collection of short fiction is not a happy or comfortable place. Through different first-person narrators in each of 13 stories, Yau portrays a sadomasochistic brother, an exhibitionist, suburban Boston cockroaches and crazy ladies, Lower East Side heroin addicts and prostitutes. The narrators share very strong yet raw powers of observation, ambiguous racial status and positions outside conventional manners and laws. The title story about a couple visiting Hawaii is perhaps the most subtle and effective. While confronting the limits of their ability to communicate with each other, the two happen upon a surreal imitation cowboy town that becomes a metaphor for the strangeness in their relationship. Yau's prose is somewhat less experimental than his poetry, has a certain deadpan sensibility whether he's being plain (``A hundred and forty dollars, seven crisp twenties'') or perverse (``I guess it's one thing to sleep with a dog, and another thing to sleep with a guy dressed up like a dog''). But even humorous moments (like when a New York cabbie takes the liberty to tell one narrator ``There's no Chinese left in you'') are cast in loneliness. Throughout, there is a self-consciousness about the difficulty and boundlessness of fiction, as well as an implied glorification of those living off the proverbial beaten path. (Feb.)