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Originally published Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Don't Cry:" Mary Gaitskill pushes the boundaries of the short story

The stories in Mary Gaitskill's new story collection, "Don't Cry," read like studies in the simultaneity of past and present, of contact and disconnect, of hard realism and fantastical allegory. Gaitskill reads April 29 at the Seattle Public Library's University Branch.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Mary Gaitskill

The author of "Don't Cry: Stories" will read from her book at 6:30 p.m. April 29 at the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library, 5009 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle. Co-sponsored by the University Book Store. Free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com, or www.spl.org).

"Don't Cry: Stories"

by Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon, 226 pp., $23.95

It's a long way from "Bad Behavior" — Mary Gaitskill's 1988 debut story collection — to "Don't Cry: Stories," her latest collection of tales. And the distance has to do with both changes in subject matter and, even more, changes in approach.

"Bad Behavior" won Gaitskill a reputation as a literary bad girl with its glimpses of dabblers in the American sexual underground: call girls with literary ambitions, sadists and masochists who have trouble making relationships work.

The book — like Gaitskill's marvelously titled second collection of stories, "Because They Wanted To" — paid intelligent attention to every wayward strand in its wayward characters' existences, offering moments when you felt the fine-toothed sensibility of Henry James was being applied to shenanigans that would have shocked the Old Master out of his wits.

In "Don't Cry: Stories" however, something new is afoot. Fresh topics are addressed. And many of the tales read almost like studies in the simultaneity of past and present, of contact and disconnect, of hard realism and fantastical allegory.

Take the opening of "Mirror Ball": "He took her soul — though, being a secular-minded person, he didn't think of it that way. He didn't take the whole thing; that would not have been possible. But he got such a significant piece that it felt as if her entire soul were gone. As soon as he had it, he not only forgot that he'd taken it; he forgot he'd ever known about it." As Gaitskill proceeds to chronicle this affair, she ponders — in the same droll, faux-clinical tone — the location of the soul, the activities of souls that get disconnected from their human owners and the effect of music on people whose souls go missing. All the while, she traces the trajectory of this couple's ill-advised romance with wry humor and perfect psychological acuity. The story is a multifaceted gem.

In "The Agonized Face," set at a literary conference, her starting point is a "feminist author" (the words are put in quotes) protesting her bad-girl reputation.

"It isn't that these things aren't true," she says. "They are. I was a prostitute for six months when I was sixteen and I spent two months in a mental hospital when I was eighteen. But I have also done a lot of other things. I have been a waitress, a factory worker, a proofreader, a journalist, a street vendor!" Having lampooned her own notoriety, Gaitskill shifts focus to something subtler: the "upper levels" of our existence, busy with "furniture, decorations, and personalities," and the lower depths "where personality is irrelevant and crude truth prevails." "The Little Boy," about an old woman's brief airport contact with an aggravated single mother and her young son, strikes a more tender note. So does the book's title story, about a middle-aged woman and her widowed friend trying to finesse an adoption in Ethiopia. But there's nothing soft or sentimental about either of them. Both have so much going on, as they observe the twining of past with present, that they approach stream-of-consciousness writing at times while maintaining a strong narrative pace.

The collection doesn't have the same cover-to-cover strength that "Because They Wanted To" had. Still, half the tales here are as fine as anything Gaitskill has ever done. And all of them push the boundaries of story possibility in one curious way or another.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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