Stories Soft and Mushy: Good for at Least One Cry

In the Gloaming: Stories , by Alice Elliott Dark. Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $23.

Those of us who think John Updike is as good a critic as he is a novelist, and a good enough novelist to crawl out unharmed from underneath the avalanche of his oeuvre (and survive, too, repeated homicidal hammerings from New Republic critic James Wood, who continues to beat the aging graphomaniac with his own prose, which is a bit like cooking veal in milk)-loyal Updike fans, in short, are duty bound to take note of Alice Elliott Dark, author of “In the Gloaming,” which Mr. Updike chose as one of the last century’s best short stories. “Quietly modulated” and “moving,” blurbed Mr. Updike.

Indeed wrenchingly effective, “In the Gloaming” is about a mother whose 33-year-old son has come home to die of AIDS. I remember reading it in The New Yorker six years ago (the mental shelf life of most New Yorker stories is more like six hours), and when I opened Ms. Dark’s new collection of stories and reread it, I cried. Tears are no sign of worth, but some readers enjoy a good wallow, and Ms. Dark sure delivers.

The son dies, but it’s the mother’s tragedy that hurts: Laird’s fatal illness brings Janet to life too late. Their talks (Laird feels the urge to speak at day’s end, in the gloaming) are a revelation to her: “The air around them seemed to crackle with the energy they were creating in their effort to know and be known.” Janet is offered a glimpse of what she’s missed living with her husband Martin, “an ambitious, competitive, self-absorbed man who probably should never have gotten married.” She’s avid, “greedy” for Laird’s company; “she was behaving like a girl with a crush,” she realizes, “behaving absurdly.” She fools herself into thinking that the conversation between mother and son will continue.

Ms. Dark’s style is plain and unpretentious, but dotted with clichés so corny that they almost seem willful and daring. The sight of Laird decimated by illness is “heart-catching”; when Martin shows a belated sign of emotional engagement, Janet’s “heart rushed toward it.” In another story, she writes about “a rush of raw feeling that made her heart seem to expand, then stop”; and two pages later: “Her heart had squeezed small as a sponge, then puffed back up with all the life she had in her.” The stomach vies with the heart for top spot in Ms. Dark’s pantheon of metaphors, but schmaltz wins out in the end.

Against this too-familiar background, the occasional flourish of invention stands out like a dab of red on a Corot canvas. Here for example, are Laird’s last moments: “When she got up to stir the embers she glanced at him in spite of herself and saw that his fingers were making knitting motions over his chest, the way people did as they were dying.… She went and stood behind him … sliding her hands down his busy arms, helping him along with his fretful stitches until he finished this last piece of work.”

Ms. Dark’s new book is called In the Gloaming ; almost all of its 10 stories are set, like the title story, in Wynnemoor, a posh Pennsylvania community not too far by train from New York City. The characters are comfortable, WASP-y suburbanites, mostly women, made uncomfortable by the usual problems: the illness or untimely death of loved ones; adultery and divorce; strained relations between parent and child. The mood is gently reflective: “We won’t necessarily get to the bottom of these problems,” the stories seem to say, “but it’s our duty to make, at least, some discreet inquiries.”

“Tolstoy said that every happy family is alike,” observes one of Ms. Dark’s characters-fact is, in Wynnemoor, even the unhappy families are alike, dully predictable in their suffering. In these stories, the lone instance of deliberate violence occurs during a tourist trip to the Amazon, as though physical brutality could only take place in the jungle; the lone eccentric is a beautiful, rich woman who makes no effort to conceal her disregard for “the distraction of human love”-she prefers animals: cats, dogs, horses, birds. The rest of the privileged Wynnemoor set could easily declare with Janet, “I’m average.” These are people propped up by convention, people who fall unthinking into “all the little habits that connect one generation to the next.”

The stories enact a similar dependence. Ms. Dark shows no interest in deviating from the comfortable conventions of short fiction. She doesn’t experiment, she doesn’t spring surprises. Every now and then there’s a passage that seems fresh, like the knitting motion of the dying Laird’s fingers, but even these little bursts of improvisation seem somehow scripted-you can almost imagine an editor or writing teacher scribbling in the margin of an early draft, Free it up a little here, take a risk!

The one notable peculiarity of Ms. Dark’s prose is her repeated use of the word “automatic” or “automatically.” She uses it four times in “In the Gloaming,” and four more times in a story called “Close,” a couple of times in “Home.” (She also scatters it liberally elsewhere, but I gave up counting.) It’s fairly obvious why she should be interested in reflexive action or speech: Many of her characters move along in their lives in an unthinking, mechanical way, doing the expected thing, letting their days pass as painlessly as possible-until some suburban drama kicks them awake. At times, also, the automatic is an unpremeditated rebellion against routine-an “automatic” subversive gesture is a tip-off, a sign that life, though tamped down by decorum, can still poke through in startling ways. I understand why Ms. Dark’s fingers tap out this same word so often-what I want to know is, does she do it automatically?

It would be unfair, of course, to blame Mr. Updike for the failings of Alice Elliott Dark’s mushy fiction. “In the Gloaming” is easily her best story. And even if it’s only sentimental stuff (one of the century’s best tear-jerkers), a story that causes you to cry reminds you of the magic that makes some people devote their lives to literature. A stranger puts words together in a particular order; years later, on another continent perhaps, certainly in another context, you scan the page and here come the tears, damp tribute to a mysterious power.