New Story Collections Nourish And Astonish Evan S. Connell, an old American master, and Claire Keegan, a young Irish prodigy, both have new books of short fiction this summer — and both are worth picking up.


Book Reviews

New Story Collections Nourish And Astonish

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Now, a review of two collections of short stories by writers young and old. One collection comes from American Evan Connell; it's called "Lost in Uttar Pradesh." And the other is by Irish writer Claire Keegan called "Walk the Blue Fields." Here's our reviewer Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: Americans best know Evan Connell for writing the novel "Mrs. Bridge" set in his native Kansas City, a book made into the popular film starring Paul Newman. If you look at his career overall - novels, story collections, a best selling nonfiction book about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, you didn't see much of Connell's best work arising from the tension between his early life in his Midwestern home ground and his forays into the far distant exotic.

Between Kansas and the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is how it plays out most vividly in his recently published collection of nearly two dozen stories. In the story, "The Walls of Avila," a Midwesterner named J.D. travels the world far and wide and sends reports back to his boyhood friends. He had tales of the Casbah in Tangier, the Kansas narrator tells us, and he had souvenirs from the ruins of Carthage. On his keychain was a fragment of polished stone that he picked up from the hillside just beyond Tunis.

In the story called "The Palace of the Moorish Kings," J.D.'s friends prepare for his homecoming after decades and decades of world wandering. Many of the other stories allow us readers to wander from the South Pacific during World War II to New York, San Francisco, to the Indian cities of Benares and Delhi. The tone is sometimes satirical when dealing with Midwest businessmen or West Coast avant-garde writers, but all of it is calibrated in sentences sometimes succulent with irony and mystery and the flavor of far distant dreams and locations.

Most of these stories have been published in earlier collections. I've read many of them before and was happy to read them again. If you're trying Evan Connell's short fiction for the first time, I hope you'd be just as pleased with his fragments of polished stone from Tunis.

Now, his stories take you traveling. In "Walk the Blue Fields," the second collection by young Irish writer, Claire Keegan, you stay close to her home grounds. In story after story, she works in a striking, Celtic-slanted prose, bringing news of life in the Irish countryside and exposing hearts and hopes and dreams.

As in the powerful title story in which we meet a doubting priest as he performs the marriage ceremony for a woman with whom he once had a near life-transforming love affair. As the priest walks across the dance floor after the marriage ceremony, Keegan writes, the bride looks into his eyes. There are tears there, but she's too proud to blink and let one fall. If she blinked, he would take her hand and take her away from this place.

The priest ends the night by paying a visit to a peasant shaman. I kept on reading. The story about the dark wages of incest in a desperate Irish farm family. The story about the disintegration of marriages. The story about an isolated young woman's discovery of seemingly magical powers. All the while, this young writer, laying out her sentences with native power and depth. Evan Connell's work is wisely nourishing, Claire Keegan's work is newly astonishing.

SIEGEL: Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse. He teaches writing at George Mason University. The short story collections he was talking about are "Lost in Uttar Pradesh" by Evan Connell and "Walk the Blue Fields" by Claire Keegan.

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