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Weekly Alibi Da Wuhndahs of da Invisible Woyld

David Gates' 'The Wonders of the Invisible World'

By Steven Robert Allen

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Beyond all the hip colloquialisms, cocaine and cruelty, you'll find some truly accomplished short stories here. Which is not to say that they're all necessarily excellent. They aren't. But they'll certainly hold your interest for the duration. The reason for this is simple: The entire collection riffs on a single, intriguing theme that never gets tiresome despite the fact that it's repeated in story after story after story.

To understand this theme you should take a look at the title. What are these wonders of the invisible world anyway? We're not talking about fairies and gnomes hiding beneath the umbrellas of enormous red mushrooms, that's for sure. Maybe it'll help you to know that the people in these stories either live in New York, live near New York, used to live in New York or want to live in New York. In other words, they're a bunch of extremely sophisticated, semi-intelligent people who know their Joyce from their Beckett and, unsurprisingly, aren't any happier lugging this knowledge through the mine-ridden wastelands of their messed-up relationships.

Say the title with a New York accent and maybe you'll get a whiff of it. Say it with cynicism and bitterness dripping from every syllable. Say it as if a pigeon just took a crap on the shoulder of your brand new suede jacket. "Yeah, yeah -- da wuhndahs of da invisible woyld. Whatevah." The wonders, as it turns out, are all the ugly, dark, foul-smelling, dangerous things we hide inside ourselves, the stuff we're too embarrassed or scared or pissed off about to share with the people around us.

In story after story, the author depicts people who are unable to articulate their innermost feelings. The stories work because Gates shows how these people would like to express their thoughts to their mates or families, but can't -- usually because they can't trust the ones who supposedly love them. The results are typically, and predictably, tragic.

David Gates, a staff writer for Newsweek, has propelled himself into a successful side career in fiction. His novel Preston Falls was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. His novel Jernigan was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Wonders of the Invisible World is his first book of short stories, but it actually feels more like a novel. The tone is fairly consistent throughout, and the characters read like they could hop from story to story feeling pretty much at home on any page. In other words, the atmosphere of the book is something like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, but with a lot more drugs, homosexuality and cussing.

There are a lot of enjoyable moments here. In "Saturn," a ring of stoned adults attending a birthday party carry on a drug-enhanced conversation in which no one can understand what anyone else is saying. One of the women announces repeatedly that she wants to sit down, but unfortunately every time she shares her intention with her friends, she immediately forgets what she was talking about and remains standing.

In "Star Baby," a gay man takes care of his junkie sister's son while she cools off in a halfway house. The man does his best to improve the kid's less-than-ideal childhood by reading to him, giving him educational CD-ROMs and playing him go-to-sleep tapes of Horowitz playing Chopin. At the same time, because of his sexual orientation, he worries about whether he will be accused of molesting the boy.

My personal favorite, though, and the story that most perfectly explores, and twists, the main theme, is the last one. In "The Mail Lady," the main character, Lewis, is a born-again Christian who's had a stroke that's left him largely unable to communicate with other people. His words slur and blur into impotent groans and murmurs. He waits around to die, questioning a God that would do something so terrible to him, and questioning his own faith as it splinters under the pressure of his intolerable predicament. In this last story, Gates brings it all back home, using his wit, humor and insight to tell a story about how hopeless life can feel when we can't, for whatever reason, talk to the people around us. The wonders of the invisible world don't get any less wonderful than this. The Wonders of the Invisible World doesn't get any better. (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $23)

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