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The Boston Phoenix Drifters

Abigail Thomas's fiction captures the charming, stumbling voices of ambivalent yet wild women.

By Kate Tuttle

APRIL 20, 1998: 

HERB'S PAJAMAS, by Abigail Thomas. Algonquin Books, 199 pages, $17.95.

AN ACTUAL LIFE, by Abigail Thomas. Algonquin Books, 236 pages, $17.95.

GETTING OVER TOM, by Abigail Thomas. Algonquin Books, 204 pages, $16.95.

Abigail Thomas's characters don't know where they're going. Take Bunny, the adolescent runaway who appears in both her debut collection of stories, Getting Over Tom, and her latest, Herb's Pajamas. On the road in search of her older sister Merle, Bunny meets and rebuffs various surrogate-family prospects, facing alone the news that she and Merle will not be reunited. Living on hope and hash brownies, Bunny keeps encountering -- and fighting -- "that feeling where you think it's a puddle but instead you slip on ice."

It's the kind of feeling Thomas's readers have come to find familiar. In all three of her books, Thomas has taken the measure of her characters' uncertainty, most often about the state of their love lives. That's not all they think about, of course. There's also -- as in Bunny's case -- loneliness, fear, insecurity, existential dread. But it's as an explorer of all the reversals and vagaries of romance that Thomas, with her fine ear and wicked sensitivity, will become known as a modern master.

Getting Over Tom consists of 12 stories, neatly grouped into sets of three. The first set revolves around the lives of young girls. In "So Far So Good," 14-year-old Bunny, "tired of winter" and "her boring life," decides to hit the road. Hitchhiking haphazardly, she is picked up by a vaguely menacing man who exposes himself to her and masturbates, "making such sad sounds." Yet Bunny "feels so calm":

Like in the list of terrible things that can happen to you, this is not so bad, Bunny is thinking. He isn't making her do anything. And it's his car, after all. Her fingers fool with the scissors in her pocket.

By the final section of stories, Thomas has turned her attention to grown-up women, and the minor miracle is that none has grown bitter or defended in her relations with men. Peri- or post-menopausal, these women haven't put on armor. They've developed something even more powerful: a wry humor, a willingness to take chances. Connie, who tries to leave her younger, unsettled, but darling lover, tells him, "I think you're more than I can chew." Minutes later, though, she's picking him up by the side of the road, haunted by her mother's epitaph for a friend who lacked such daring ("she almost had a story taken by the New Yorker once").

Scenes like these might seem to suggest an easy heartiness, a glib affirmation that wild women don't get the blues. But most of the stories in Getting Over Tom resist such pat interpretation. Thomas writes with such quick, delicate thrusts that her characters, on the surface not easily distinguishable from the soft-focus eccentrics of someone like Anne Tyler, reveal themselves to be at once more familiar and more deeply offbeat than that. Thomas has an ease with dialogue -- and a weakness for appealingly fumbling voices -- that nearly hides just how wild some of these women really are.

An Actual Life, Thomas's only novel, features just such a voice. Virginia Davenport, a painfully young wife and mother, natters on about her husband's blatant disregard of her superstitious fears ("It is bad luck to stir with a knife"), her baby daughter's taste for dirt, her mother's disappointed social hopes for her (" 'Kings adored you, Virginia,' she said to me once"). Beneath the flustered charm, Virginia's engaged in as serious a quest as exists in life: to craft a new self-definition following a tragedy. Virginia hasn't suffered death or destruction, but her unplanned pregnancy and her misbegotten marriage to Buddy, who is still in love with his former girlfriend, have hit her like a natural disaster.

A narrative of thwarted motion, An Actual Life floats along on the strength of Thomas's vivid insight into Virginia's mental processes. On the beach, oiling her friend's back after putting sunscreen on her baby gives her a queasy sensation she calls "big/little" -- the feeling one gets when "something is way out of proportion, like an aspirin next to a pillow." When this happens, she says, "the inside of you wants to get out and run away." Not completely introspective -- though nearly so -- Virginia is also an acute observer of others, especially her parents (her mother thinks "covered candy dish" are "the three saddest words in the English language"). Toward the end of the novel, it seems for a moment that Virginia has reached a mature understanding of her situation, a willingness to settle down and enjoy life's small pleasures. "As long as we're stuck with each other, we might as well go to the fair," she says -- just before packing her bags and taking off.

An Actual Life's cliffhanger ending begged for a sequel, but Thomas's latest book instead doubles back, revisiting some characters from Getting Over Tom (in the strongest entry, "Bunny's Sister") even as it breaks new ground in form and theme. A quartet of New Yorkers inhabit Herb's Pajamas, whose title derives from the final entry. Rather than a novel, Thomas's new a four-part exploration of the disconnect between love and life.

The first story introduces Walter, a middle-aged writer paralyzed by his wife's leaving and undone by her plans for remarriage. There's no shortage here of Thomas's acute observations, both of the physical world (entering his college-age daughter's bedroom, Walter finds that "the air is filled with cigarette smoke, layer upon layer, like stratus clouds, which the opening door disturbs") and of the emotional realm. Walter is a tender man whose profound loneliness is beginning to verge on a kind of penitential hermitdom. Baffled by both his daughter and his wife (whose old bathrobe he sometimes sleeps with), Walter embarks on an imagined conversation with a mysterious force that speaks to him unexpectedly. ""You have nothing to fear," it tells him. "I'm a Superior Being that just has a momentary need of your body and brain. I will relinquish them in due course and undamaged."

Metaphysical dialogue is not Thomas's strong suit, however. The ho-hum Q&A sessions between Walter and a smug, godlike voice are the least effective element in an otherwise affecting story. It's Thomas's only foray into the experimental mode -- a musty, retro-style experimental mode, at that -- and it stands out starkly against the smooth, self-assured course that Thomas steers in her more conventional moments.

The second section of Herb's Pajamas is less fantastical yet, disappointingly, more gimmicky. In it, Thomas introduces Edith, an aging Rubenesque virgin who is the daughter of a silent-film star. Edith, whom we briefly catch sight of in Walter's section, is a blushing, chattering ninny at first glance, but her strength and solidity gradually reveal themselves in a series of vignettes named after various articles of clothing. Some of these riffs work better than others. In "Negligee," Edith's attempt to consummate a pathetic, offhand sexual invitation from a former schoolmate veers from comedy to tragedy to small, triumphant vindication:

On the way out, she dropped a teacup into Tyler's disposal, pushing it well down. It would be difficult to retrieve. This gave her some satisfaction, and she smiled. She just wanted to break something of his, she didn't know why.

Edith, reappears in "Herb's Pajamas," the last and slightest entry, in which she helps her neighbor Belle remove from her doorstep the dead body of Belle's married lover. Such interplay between the separate stories lets Thomas show her characters from various angles -- the weak seem solid, the homely dashing, when glimpsed from another point of view.

Herb's Pajamas seems full of promise; "Bunny's Sister," in particular, conveys a twisting narrative possibility that goes beyond what Thomas's earlier work suggested. Nevertheless, it feels as if Thomas hasn't yet hit her stride. Too many beautiful moments trail off, evocative but too slight to support the sense of movement hinted at in "Bunny's Sister" or the depth of character in An Actual Life. When she marries the two more consistently, and she will, then Thomas will become the novelist her talent dictates she should be. She's already one of the sliest, most engaging voices around, and her characters, poised between self-doubt and self-renewal, are some of the best fictional company a reader can find today.

Kate Tuttle is a writer living in Cambridge.

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