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Sunday, October 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Michael Upchurch
Deep-seated longing, seen in long perspective that's the subject matter of almost every story in Canadian writer Alice Munro's solid new collection, "Runaway."
Those longings can be sexual or intellectual; they can take the form of a covert hankering for independence or, just as urgently, a desire for a richer and more sophisticated social life.
In the story "Chance," a young woman's hunger for a college education and a life of the mind is at stake this, at a time (the early 1960s) when the notion of such opportunities for women was usually ridiculed, even pitied.
"In the town where she grew up," Munro writes of her heroine, "her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb."
In the book's title story, Munro is just as sympathetic, if a little wrier, toward a none-too-bright young gal who yearns to escape a domineering husband and a marriage she thinks has had the love drained out of it. The trouble is this "runaway" doesn't know her own mind or heart. The resulting tale is kindred in spirit to Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net," where human folly in love is both gently ribbed and seen as an inscrutably shadowy business.
Whether Munro's women and the protagonists in this collection are all women are whip smart or slow on the uptake, their lives rarely proceed smoothly or logically from Point A to Point B.
Their plans for themselves are repeatedly tampered with by Fate (so active a character that the capital "F" is definitely needed). And the truth behind their lives may not reveal itself until decades after the story's supposed main event. The ultimate outcome can be cruel, as it is in "Tricks," where one missing piece of vital information changes a whole life.
Indeed, there are moments here that are, for Munro, tougher and chillier than usual. Her take on the stultifying nature of small-town life (especially in Ontario) will be familiar to readers of her earlier work, but it's viewed more damningly than ever in this book. And Munro's sense of how emancipation exacts its own costs, containing the seeds of its own demise or compromise, has acquired a more biting irony.
That's not to say there isn't any humor here. In "Soon," an atheist schoolteacher newly arrived in 1950s rural Ontario amusingly wangles his way out of weekly church attendance by explaining that he and his wife are Druids. "Word had gone around that they belonged to a church not represented in town, and that information had moved them up a notch from having no religion at all."
Rogue impulses also furnish a humorlike relief in lives that seem to have no escape hatch. In "Passion," young waitress Grace forced to cut short her education for lack of money, and feeling trapped by her rural Ottawa Valley existence is spotted by Maury Travers, son of a city family that summers near the restaurant where she works. He falls for her and she, in turn, falls for his family, especially his mother. The Travers, however, are more volatile than she initially realizes. Even warm and welcoming Mrs. Travers gets "into trouble, now and then, with her nerves."
At a Travers Thanksgiving celebration where Grace, for the first time, meets Maury's half-brother Neil (the most erratic family member of all), "muted but powerful signals" are exchanged and a wild ride through the Ontario boondocks ensues. Grace's and Neil's fates are soon meted out with the same abrupt caprice and irony that the old Greek gods once used in dispensing justice to hapless mortals.
Throughout the book there is, as always in Munro, an illuminating, unsparing insight into human motive and behavior. Again and again, small moments closely observed expand into revelations of the thorny dynamics or buoyant contradictions of the characters at hand.
Not everything in the book is perfect. In "Trespasses," it takes far too long for the reader to realize that the main character is 10 years old and not, as she seems at first, well along into adolescence. And there are no stories here that are surprising in quite the same way that "Carried Away" or "The Albanian Virgin" (from Munro's 1994 collection "Open Secrets") were surprising, opening up venturesome new narrative possibilities for the short story. (The new book's closing story, "Powers," about the life of an odd woman with questionable telepathic talents, does come close.)
So a "solid" collection, rather than a career-topping one. Just keep in mind that "solid" in Munro's case is still better than almost anything else out there.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.
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