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Originally published Friday, September 11, 2009 at 12:03 AM

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Book review

'The Man from Kinvara': Tess Gallagher's short stories in a Northwest landscape

Many of Port Angeles author/poet Tess Gallagher's short stories in "The Man from Kinvara" are set in the rural fringes of the Northwest. Gallagher appears with poet Fred Marchant Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tess Gallagher

The author of "The Man from Kinvara" will appear with Fred Marchant, author of the poetry collection "The Looking House," 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

The writer V.S. Pritchett once defined the short story as "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing." His implication was that if a piece of short fiction examined anything too closely — a seemingly endless passage in Alain Robbe-Grillet's "La Jalousie," with a description on the shape of a grove of banana trees, most comes to mind — it might lose both the element of surprise and the emotionalism of the reader's imagination.

What to leave out, as much as what to put in, has always been the writer's quandary, particularly for one crafting short fiction.

Tess Gallagher probably knows nothing about banana trees, but she does know the timber industry, and her short story "I Got a Guy Once" is fiction so steeped in the Northwest that it's impossible to imagine a writer from another region authoring it. The story offers just enough detail on cutting timber, and what a "great fir spar" looks like as it falls, that it carries authority. It also implies, rather than states, the brooding, menacing nature of the trees, thus keeping the dramatic tension that results when death could be around the corner at any moment.

"The Man From Kinvara: Selected Stories" (Greywolf, 272 pp., $15) collects "I Got a Guy Once" along with 17 other Gallagher stories, all taken from two previous collections. Many are set in the Northwest, but usually in rural fringes like Aberdeen or Gallagher's own Port Angeles, where economic catastrophe looms treelike over lives already struggling for dignity.

Sometimes the struggles are solely internal and the landscape unidentified, as in "A Pair of Glasses," which is about a young girl's obsessive desire to wear spectacles. Like many in this book, this story exists in an unidentified time in the past, with the description "dime store" glasses adding a layer of meaning.

As a poet, Gallagher has eight volumes to date, but her short stories are mostly without overt metaphors and carried by their true-to-life settings and language. "Girls" details how a friendship between two elderly women suffers as one loses her memory. When the two nap together, with nonsexual touching that only true intimates could share, it again speaks by being quiet. "Coming and Going," in contrast, works because of its detailed character study of a widow's grief. When a man knocks at the widow's door, she thinks he bears a million-dollar prize. Gallagher writes: "She was sixty-five years old. It was about time."

Gallagher is Raymond Carver's widow, of course, and she spearheaded "Raymond Carver: Collected Stories," just out from the Library of America. The new volume restores his stories to their pre- edited state.

It would be artistically unfair to compare husband and wife, though he encouraged her to tackle the form, and at least in landscape they share a similar beat. The timing of the two books is unfair to her worthy collection, however, even as it gives us a chance to reread his famous "On Writing" essay, in which he cites the Pritchett quote. A short story writer's task, Carver adds, is to "invest the glimpse." By that standard, among others, "The Man from Kinvara" is a joy.

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