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Alice Elliott Dark's morality tales

By David Valdes Greenwood

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

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

"Her strongest point was a deep moral acuity, but who knew if the world would honor that?" That anxiety, that one's better nature will not find safe haven in this world, is the thread of tension that runs through In the Gloaming, Alice Elliott Dark's first collection of short stories. By turns moving and exasperating, this uneven collection shows Dark's skill at wrestling with the internal lives of characters who strive for goodness -- or at least strive to conduct themselves with a certain middle-class rightness -- in the face of the disappointments and the heartaches of their family lives. How the struggle is resolved, or not resolved, seems to determine the success of the individual tales.

The strongest stories, including the elegiac title piece, are ones in which a character's private thoughts reflect the messy human combination of noble impulses and selfish desires. "In the Gloaming," selected by John Updike for the Best American Short Stories of the Century anthology, is a bittersweet tale of the months-long final conversation between a young man dying of AIDS and his mother, Janet. We are inside Janet's head as she takes admittedly selfish pleasure in their talks, always held during the moments of "purple light" from which the story's title comes. She becomes so dependent on these chats that she finds herself sleeping late in the morning so that the day will be shorter and the conversations sooner, which awakens her to a painful truth: her son is the real love of her life.

Rich character and psychological insight are the twin engines that drive that story; but the same virtues are in much shorter supply in the collection's second piece, which suffers greatly by placement after the first. In "Dreadful Language," 20 years' worth of plot and exposition are sketched in barest fashion, apparently so the narrator can arrive at the momentous conclusion: "I had become my mother, the person I resented most." Unfortunately, Dark has mapped out such obvious parallels between mother and daughter -- the plot contains two of everything, including sudden deaths and marriages of convenience -- that the reader is likely to arrive intuitively at the big epiphany 10 or 15 pages in advance of the narrator. And then Dark takes time to spell out precisely which emotions this revelation is meant to evoke: "Regret. Shame. Loneliness."

That complete lack of subtlety briefly made me wonder whether the title story was a fluke, but it's not. Despite occasional lapses into such obviousness, the collection is studded with characters whose interior lives take unexpected turns, whose needs and desires are seldom simple. In "Triage," Ella, a widow, engages in theological debate over the telephone with her least-friendly daughter, Margie, while granddaughter Caroline plays at Margie's feet. The women's perspectives on each other provide the conflict of the story: Margie, trying to keep an eye on her daughter while listening, perceives her mother's voice as "a swarm of bees pestering a growth of peonies," while Ella is sure that Margie is just experiencing "the early-motherhood stage of tunnel vision." The conversation increasingly plucks at both women's nerves. Add a baby toddling out of sight, and the tension is unbearable -- all of it homespun and true, not a tricky device in sight.

Dark doesn't always trust that kind of tension, and several stories are of the sudden-twist variety. A confrontation that springs from a love triangle in the story "In a Secret Spot" enthralls more for its juicy mystery than for any profound insight into the characters' lives; and an exotic tale ends with a movie-of-the-week one-two punch of rape and incest. When the jagged swings from subtle craft to hokey overtness occur within one piece, the result is like reading an Alice Munro story reconfigured by O. Henry. "The Tower," a witty riff on the expression "old enough to be her father," turns on the least plausible plot point in the entire book. Still, its depiction of a middle-aged man seeking rebirth through romance with younger women -- and acting like an irrepressible schoolboy in the process -- is undeniably entertaining.

The only other story with a male protagonist is "Close"; the narrator, Ian, must choose between his pregnant wife and his devoted mistress. Dark tells this story with sympathy for all parties, and avoids any easy resolution. Because of her restraint, this is a story that sings with humanity, the ache of desire without malice, requiring the reader to decide what is right and what is good, or whether the two are the same. That question, which arises in various forms throughout this collection, is Dark's most promising terrain.

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