cover image Charity


Mark Richard. Nan A. Talese, $19.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-385-42562-9

The desperation and loneliness of poverty-mired and dead-end lives are reflected with pathos or shocking black humor in Richard's second collection of 10 short stories (the first was the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning Ice at the Bottom of the World). The diversity of tone and vision in this collection keeps the reader reeling. Richard's distinctive prose, segueing from terse sentences, Southern-cadenced ""y'alls"" and casual profanity to lush, Faulknerish arabesques, reflects pain, bewilderment, bravado and resignation--but never the facile epiphanies of characters who have the leisure to think about the emptiness of their lives. Some of his characters are children or teenagers born into poor and isolating environments who, like the protagonist of his novel, Fishboy, find themselves even worse off when they try to escape than they previously were. In ""Memorial Day,"" a boy hoping to ward off Death--a talkative spirit who wears ""white pants and a white dinner jacket""--from his dying older brother, is himself seduced. In ""Gentleman's Agreement,"" a weary father, too poor on a firefighter's wages to pay a doctor to take the stitches out of his son's injured head, does it himself with pliers, ""snipping and tugging at the black silky thread that had bound together the torn flesh."" In ""The Birds for Christmas,"" two orphan boys who have not been invited from the chronic ward of a state hospital to a home for the holiday ask to watch Hitchcock's The Birds. At movie's end, the narrator admits, ""It was Christmas Eve. And we were sore afraid"" of the future. But there is justice too, as in the surprise ending of ""Where Blue Is Blue,"" a story in which the bizarre--the mangled body of a circus contortionist washes up on a beach--is rendered with commonplace detail. Richard's imagination generally encompasses the bleak, the raunchy and the eccentric, but he goes over the edge in ""Fun at the Beach,"" a tale with characters so hilariously grotesque that it takes a strong stomach to read about them. While he is indisputably a master of words, Richard's stylistic legerdemain will appeal mainly to those willing to follow an author down a dark and slippery path. Editor, Nan Talese; author tour. (Aug.)