'Dear Life': Alice Munro on familiar territory

Alice Munro is a giant of the short story. While not her absolute finest, this collection gives glimpses into the Canadian writer's soul

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Books are no-brainer gifts for the holiday season (no, this is not a gift guide) so I'm sure that quite a few readers will find Alice Munro's 12th short-story collection wrapped and beribboned with their name on the gift tag.

Certainly, they could do worse -- much worse, actually -- but in other years, recipients of a Munro collection would have done a bit better. Risking the wrath of Alice fans everywhere during this season of charity, I must report that "Dear Life," though full of its familiar Munro moments, finds her digging up the same ground, but finding she's sifted out much of the gold ore that has held us in her thrall for a long time.

Along with four autobiographical vignettes titled "Finale," Ms. Munro again pulls her readers into the mundane small towns of her native Ontario, a patch of flat farmland west of the Welland Canal bordering Lake Huron and dotted with grain elevators, endless power lines carrying electricity from Niagara and two-lane roads straight as a string stretching to the horizon.


By Alice Munro.
Knopf ($26.95).

The big cities are London and, if you're really adventuresome, Toronto, where two of Ms. Munro's small-town characters find themselves after bringing ill women there for hospitalization. In "Train" and "Leaving Maverley," the men encounter women from their past, coincidences that feel more like plot gimmicks than organic ones.

Otherwise, "Train" is the most moving piece in the collection. It's the story of Jackson, a veteran returning from World War II to a sweetheart in British Columbia. But Jackson jumps the train in Munro country, where he just happens to land at a single woman's rundown farm in need of a man's touch.

Owner Belle's life is freighted with tragedy. Her father, a Toronto newspaper columnist, threw himself in front of a train in shame for having incestuous feelings about his daughter. Her mother is now dead and, alone, she's overwhelmed with the neglected property.

Jackson becomes her live-in hired man and repairs the place. Because he also works for the Mennonite farmers at harvest, he becomes accepted in the rural community. The Mennonites soon understand that because Jackson is "a certain kind of man," their daughters have nothing to fear.

Neither does Belle. When she become seriously ill, Jackson takes her to Toronto for treatment and, to fill his days, works as a maintenance man at an apartment.

With her subtle ambiguity, Ms. Munro turns an ordinary story of a drifter into a complex account of how a gay man coped with the closeted world of an earlier era.

Annie Proulx dealt with it in a melodramatic fashion with "Brokeback Mountain," but Alice Munro takes a measured, more realistic treatment. When Jackson's former fiancee appears at his workplace -- dozens of years and thousands of miles later -- he simply runs away rather than risk exposure. Happiness isn't an option for Jackson; running and hiding are.

I only wish that Ms. Munro had devised a more believable event to trigger Jackson's flight.

"Leaving Maverley" is less satisfying. Ray, a small-town police officer, brings his wife to Toronto for her failing health. There's no hope for her, but he's suddenly buoyed when Leah, a young woman from the town, appears at the hospital as a rehab worker. As often happens in those stolid Ontario towns, an affair with the town's minister cost her marriage and custody of her children. She had become "an expert at losing."

When Ray's wife dies after lingering for four years, his grief confuses him, yet his only consolation is his memory of Leah. Ms. Munro leaves us without a sense of an ending unlike "Train."

Four short pieces make up "Finale," the "first and last -- and the closest -- things I have to say about my own life," Ms. Munro tells us. They are moments of her childhood in the 1930s in rural Ontario where her mother taught school and her father ended up as a factory worker after several of his businesses including mink farming failed.

Her parents seemed unsuited to each other, creating a tension and dissatisfaction among couples that are often found in her stories. And, like most of her characters, Ms. Munro tells only what is necessary to advance the story. No tell-all here, just a hint of melancholy and the smallest sense of regret.

We see glimpses of the lively, probing imagination developing in the child that would blossom into the polished fiction writer as the characteristic Munro reticence hangs a thin barrier between her outer and inner life.

If your appetite is still eager for short fiction, there's "The Best American Short Stories 2012" edited by Tom Perrotta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). It contains an Alice Munro story not included in "Dear Life" as well as one by Jennifer Haigh, Cambria County native and author of such novels as "Faith" and "Baker Towers."


Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com.


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