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Pity Short-Story Collection Doesn’t Reflect Veteran’s Talent

August 6, 2008

“Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories,” by Evan S. Connell (Counterpoint, $27)

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Evan S. Connell, now in his 80s, has written classic novels (“Mrs. Bridge,”"Mr. Bridge”), a classic Western history (“Son of the Morning Star,” about Custer’s Last Stand) and any number of droll, perceptive historical essays about explorers who had a shaky grasp on where they were going (collected in “The Aztec Treasure House”).

But what’s his record with the short story?

“Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories” suggests it’s a little patchy.

True, there are masterpieces in the collection. One of them is “Arcturus,” a 1954 story about a man, Muhlbach, whose terminally ill wife invites a former lover to their home. The fluid way Connell portrays this encounter, moving from one viewpoint to another, recalls the best work of Virginia Woolf. Husband, wife, lover, children, servants and a young ballet dancer who’s been brought on this “date” without knowing what she’s getting into all have their moments at the fore. In less than 40 pages, Connell captures their questions, yearnings and dilemmas with a shrewd yet sympathetic wit.

Another Muhlbach story, “St. Augustine’s Pigeon” (1962), finds him widowed and trying to cut loose from grief and suburban stultification by taking an ill-advised journey through the nightspots of Manhattan. A third Muhlbach tale, “Puig’s Wife” (1965), leads him into an awkward encounter with a friend’s spouse. The two tales repeat the same revelation: Outwardly stolid man roils with inner turmoil and sensitivity. Neither matches the more varied achievement of “Arcturus.”

Awkward family situations drive “Nan Madol” (1992), in which the narrator has to entertain his cranky, globe-hopping Uncle Gates, and “Noah’s Ark” (1993), in which a liberal academic family tries to protect their gullible live-in maid from a radio evangelist’s apocalyptic sermons and appeals for funds. Both tales hit their mark.

A sharper note is struck in “Guadalcanal” (formerly titled “The Marine”), set in a Bremerton naval hospital where a double amputee spares his roommate no detail of battlefield reality. Connell in his preface says he intended this 1966 story to say “something about the deterioration or degeneration of men at war.” He succeeds.

“Caribbean Provedor” (1966) bristles with threats and miscommunication as it recounts the shipboard acquaintance of a passenger and a possible smuggler; it’s a tidy, menacing package. With bitter humor, “Bowen” (1992) depicts a writer who, after early success, realizes he’s going nowhere. The detail is crisp, picaresque, detached _ and it works. But in other stories, sharp satirical aim becomes brittle obviousness.

“The Walls of avila” (1955) and “The Palace of the Moorish Kings” (1972) condescend to their small-town Midwestern characters (the same cast in both tales) as they keep envious track of a friend who managed to escape and traipse his way around the world. The repetition of characters and theme seems oddly redundant in a “Selected Stories.” Repetition is even more of a problem in “Mrs. Proctor Bemis” (1994) and two new stories, “Proctor Bemis” and “Election Eve.” In all three, a “fat ex-Republican ex-stockbroker” somehow comes around to left-leaning views. What made him more susceptible to conversion than his liberalism-proof wife and peers? We never learn. Husband and wife wind up feeling like political mouthpieces.

Many of the recurring characters in the collection suggest unfinished business rather than expansions on a theme _ as though they’re from novels that never got off the ground. The title story, a new tale that brings back Uncle Gates from “Nan Madol,” is an exception as it moves the uncle-nephew relationship toward its inevitable conclusion. Still, one strong story or novella might have had more impact.

The packaging of these tales is frustrating, too. Their order follows no discernible chronology or thematic grouping. You have to go to Connell’s “Collected Stories” (1995) to learn when they were written. With a “New and Selected Stories,” a writer usually tries to put a definitive stamp on his work in the genre. In “Lost in Uttar Pradesh,” Connell instead delivers a handful of solid achievements and some tantalizing loose ends.

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