'How the Indians Buried Their Dead' by Hilary Masters

Nostalgia has bitter edge in Masters' latest

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The laconic and singular writer Hilary Masters sculpts deft characterizations with spare narrative and carefully crafted, even sparer dialogue in his fiction.

Some of the 14 stories in his unusual collection work better than others, but even in the lesser ones, Masters' voice -- skeptical, accurate, fair and often acidic-- comes through.

Take the title story, a meditation on nostalgia. It tells of a return to a boyhood home now occupied by nameless, foreboding strangers. It's scary and grainy and, like the related "Meatloaf" and the tarter, even bleaker "Solitaire," is about the fault lines of memory:

"How the Indians Buried Their Dead"
By Hilary Masters
Southern Methodist University Pres ($22.50)

"And what happened to that old man who had lived with them?" the nameless narrator asks himself. "Was he a distant relative? Or maybe he had been a boarder; it was a large house with many rooms, corridors every which way. He remembers the shoebox of ribbons and medals the old man would bring down from a closet's top shelf for bedtime stories, star-shaped and crinkly to the touch, in browns and purples and yellows."

There's a deliberate vagueness in this meaty, gray paragraph. It's a successful attempt to muddy the waters in order to quicken ambiguity and stimulate curiosity and unease in the reader.

By contrast, "Shoe Polish," the most straightforward story, and "Double Wedding Ring," the most hopeful, also are the warmest.

On the whole, there's little sunny in Masters' stories. But there is occasional humor, as in "Mourning After," the mordant tale of a "two-man delegation of sympathy," and in "The Italian Grammar," a stylish look at literary pretension.

That story, like the more contrived and more ambitious "Chekhov's Gun," covers terrain similar to that claimed by novelist Arthur Phillips in "Prague." Masters, like Phillips, enjoys contrasting cultures.

Masters is a professor of English and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a city that figures in "Shoe Polish," the most affectionate story in a collection that often feels emotionally withholding.

The lovers in "Chekhov's Gun" are shadowy and exotic in the continental half, frustrated and unfulfilled in the more repressive, American second half.

The sisters in "The Genuine Article" one-up each other in flirtatiousness, throwing their mean mother into high relief. "The Catch," like several others a study in culture contrast, is a neat little horror story.

It's not that Masters is all over the board, though he's comfortable with a variety of locales; he's a disciplined writer for sure. He aims to take readers out of their comfort zones and into unsettling emotional territory.

Masters never fails at that; think of him as a modern-day O. Henry, a commander of the quotidian in whom the milk of human kindness has curdled.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.


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