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Collection provides a window into Mary Gordon's world

Mary Gordon plumbs the messiness of human life. Mary Gordon plumbs the messiness of human life. (Emma Dodge Hanson)

The Stories of Mary Gordon, Pantheon, 480 pp., $26

All too often in life, there come those moments when you're finally reading an author you've long known of, and your reaction is a poignant mix of delight and self-reproach: Delight because the writing is better than you dared hope, and self-reproach at having foolishly denied yourself for so long. My most recent such moment came with reading "The Stories of Mary Gordon, " the very first career-spanning collection of her short fiction.

I have heard Gordon variously characterized as a writer of the Irish - American experience, of Catholic America, and of relations between the sexes -- all of which are reasonably accurate and come nowhere close to doing her work justice. What she does brilliantly, whatever her subject, is plumb the extraordinary messiness of human life: the inseparability of pain from love, the psychological warfare of family relations, the emotional devastation that frequently mars the lives of the seemingly successful and complete. And she writes what is possibly among the best prose in America today. The power of her writing lies not in stunning one-liners but in the cumulative effect of page after page of sentences so fine each one disdains to call attention to itself.

Viewed as a whole, this collection is remarkable for its sheer variety of subject and setting. In "City Life" the wife of an Ivy League academic confronts both her inability to completely escape the traumas of her childhood and the blunt fact that the "success" of her marriage is based almost entirely on her husband never having really gotten to know her. "Temporary Shelter" -- the title piece of her 1987 collection -- shows us the world through the eyes of a boy on the verge of adolescence as he loses the only home he's ever had and the only people he's ever loved. "Violation" takes us into the mind of a 40-something woman as she prepares dinner for the uncle who tried to rape her 20 years earlier.

Lest you think this anthology is a catalog of human misery, it does contain some comic moments. "The Deacon" is a painfully funny tale of parochial - school life, in which a nun is cornered into overseeing the retirement celebrations of a colleague she despises. In the "Epiphany Street Branch" -- a masterpiece of pathos -- we enter the mind of a 78-year-old autodidact as she uneasily negotiates the mélange of dilettantes, minority teenagers, and the homeless that makes up the clientele of her local library. And "My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog" is a dry, almost surreal sketch of doctor-patient relations.

Gordon lets you see the world through the eyes of harried college presidents, overworked nuns, celebrity chefs, Irish immigrants, and lonely widows. Her characters are always utterly convincing, in complete, perfectly conceived worlds. Gordon is a writer of profound imagination and empathy. It's been a long time since I've read a collection of short stories that so utterly fulfilled the promise of serious fiction: to let you be other people for a short while, and then return to yourself, wonderfully enriched.

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