cover image In the Penny Arcade

In the Penny Arcade

Steven Millhauser. Alfred A. Knopf, $14.95 (164pp) ISBN 978-0-394-54660-5

Magic, dark fantasy and enchantment provide the recurrent atmosphere and literary mode of this collection of seven stories by the author of Portrait of a Romantic, the first, ""August Eschenburg,'' of novella length. In the title narrative, a 12-year-old leaves the brilliant sunlight of the ``real'' world to enter a penny arcade he dimly recalls from his childhood. He is in search of ``an overwhelming secret . . . something mysterious and elusive that I could scarcely name.'' But the mechanical gunslinging cowboy proves a creaking, absurd figure and the fortune teller a decayed ruin. The endless disrobing of the nickelodeon woman can still reveal inexhaustible secrets. Then once again the glory fades and the boy concludes that only faith, if it can be retrieved, will restore the wonder that once was. In another tale, an adolescent girl undergoes a series of mysterious changes on the jagged path to self-knowledge; and ``Cathay'' is a series of magical vignettes situated in an enchanted land of marvelous transformations and exotic rituals. While the meaning of the stories can be willfully enigmatic and the writing at times self-conscious and labored, the prose can also be strong and vivid. There can be no doubt of the author's distinctive imaginative gifts, originality and flair. January 6