by Pete Fromm

(Picador) $23

After two decades of shotgun-and-shitheel innovation through terse, bold scrawls upon the crumbling sheetrock of deconstructed masculinity, this fictional territory is so terribly familiar to fans of the modern short story that we can trace the map's contours with our eyes shut. This territory is as American as Mickey Mouse and as serious as a foreclosure on the family farm. It's called, by those in the know, Carver Country: a rough-and-tumble landscape potholed by loss and overcast by absence, where memory and nostalgia mark the paths to endless working-class tomorrows, and domestic conflict bursts the strata with topographies of grief. It's a place of endless autumn and intermittent small joys, and it's sparsely populated by sobered-up (or maybe not sobered-up) members of the lumpen proletariat, down-in-the-mouth folks short on luck who articulate their longing through tick-tock silences and stammerings and sometimes just a big knuckle sandwich. But these tough skins hide good hearts in Carver Country -- these macho men typically aren't as callused as they first appear, though they still make it pretty tough on the womenfolk, with their jealousies and infidelities and constant disappearing acts.

In his new collection, Night Swimming, Pete Fromm ambles over these well-marked highways and muddy byways of Carver Country with a steady and confident gait, leaving no turned stone unturned again. And if it can be said that there's really nothing much new here, well, so what? People don't complain about the originality of a lawyer's argument if she wins the trial, and there are already enough lawyers anyway, so why not yet another tough-but-sensitive writer from Montana? At this relatively early point in his career, Fromm is already way better -- more incisive and punchy and graceful -- than Richard Ford (who somewhere around '95 enlisted himself into the rank-and-file of what Joan Didion termed the "rote middle intelligentsia"). While none of Fromm's stories can be said to radically challenge the inherited conventions of the Big Sky genre, they're nonetheless engaging and extremely well-executed; they also have that ineffable quality of reverberation -- they creep up on you days later. RICK LEVIN


by Lisa Lubasch

(Avec Books) $14

Lisa Lubasch's first book of poetry reads like a cerebral, slow-motion cannonball into a Nietzschean backyard pool -- a pool cohabited by lepers and farm animals. There is no carnal stench, though. The outcast and the nonhuman element stand as purified limit gestures in a rarified quest for self knowledge.

Musicality of verse is Lubasch's calling card, but her prose poems fragment into philosophical aphorisms. Lubasch's poetry achieves a level of concise enigma, arrived at only after ruthless self-editing. Her hatchet turns on language as a means of undressing. Are we merely clothed in language, or constituted by it? Lubasch offers poetry as a revealing and domestication of language, which, because language may be what we are, amounts to a gesture of paranoid self exposure and self discipline.

The self Lubasch depicts remains stubbornly vacant: "I am not unlike an open wall, revealing as it opens back, its own immense unself. I endeavor to describe both wall and what is opened into the where of its recession."

In Lubasch-land, meaning emerges only from the inevitability of language (and not the other way around). In an interview, she told me that concepts were not her first concern, that rhythm and music took precedence over philosophical concepts. Later she revised this, saying that she attends to where philosophy and poetry tangle up. However that may be, with this challenging book, the deep division between poetry and philosophy looks that much more like rhetoric. GREGG MILLER



by Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale

(Fawcett paperback, 1971)

The unsurprising thing about this memoir by the wife of the famous minister is that her kindly, uncomplicated outlook echoes her husband's: His 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, melded Christianity and basic empathic psychology. What is surprising is how decent and moral (and occasionally applicable) some of Mrs. Peale's suggestions are, even though they're dottily simplistic.

To a churchgoer whose mother-in-law drives him up the wall by loudly "scuffing" into the kitchen each morning, then slurping her coffee like an ape, Mrs. Peale suggests the man invite the slobby woman for lunch at a nice restaurant, to make her feel like a human being, not merely an in-law. Peale also describes a weird account of a newly married woman who irrationally fears that her deceased mother has been buried alive. The author analyzes these and other situations intelligently, with her own zippy brand of aikido for the soul -- usually calling for kindness and hard work in relationships. The book is an unsettling read in post-Me-Generation America, the place where mean, destructive people appear on prime time airwaves like heroes.

Mrs. Peale's ribald conviction that women must be shy, supportive helpmates to their men at any cost makes this book a wacky ride. Admonishments like "the divorce courts are full of women who didn't study their men, who didn't try to anticipate and meet their men's needs," are hilarious. I don't know how poor Mrs. Peale, who perhaps once in this book refers to her own first name, coped with constantly putting her husband's needs before hers. Maybe she had an ulcer, but, born in 1906, it appears she's still alive, positive thoughts and all. Celebrate her earnest vision and vintage aphorisms by making her a stocking stuffer this Christmas!


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