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Arts & Entertainment
04/25/04

By JOHN ROWAN
Authorís animals point way to defining moments

Beasts in Their Wisdom by Eugene K. Garber (the Snailís Pace Press, 112 pages, $14.95, ISBN 0-9675273-5-X )

Eugene Garber, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at SUNY Albany, writes stories with sharply drawn people, realistic and fantastic animals and vivid settings.

He offers moments of triumph, revelation, sadness, disappointment and romantic breakthroughs. And sometimes, meaning is hidden or an ending is puzzling.

None of the 10 stories in his new collection Beasts in their Wisdom is likely to suffer the adjective "boring."

Beasts is Garberís third book. One story was written in the past three years; the others have appeared in literary journals over the last 30 years.

In a recent conversation, Garber called this collection "a sort of quasi-retrospective."

Animals figure prominently; real and imagined creatures appear in all but two stories, "The Uncle" and "The Flight."

Garberís animals work hard, but not in the literal way that oxen pull a plow, horses pull a wagon or Siberian Huskies and Samoyeds pull a dog sled. Rather, they lead the human characters to the main point of each story.

For example, in "An Old Dance," a mother is concerned that Lane, her youngest son, is not tough enough. She remarks that Lane, who is 13, is "an emotional hemophiliac . . . for it has often seemed that a deep bruise to his feelings would be fatal."

To cure this condition, the mother takes Lane and the family to Mexico, to initiate him by attending a boxing match, bull fighting, a meat market filled with freshly killed animals and a recreation of an Aztec sacrificial ritual.

In "The Hunter," a man is pursuing a trophy deer high in the western mountains, where the wind races "down from the mountain, bristling the air, arming it with catís teeth." His hunt is interrupted by an old woman hiking with determination up the steep windy grade.

The deer escapes and woman dies; she has no identification and carries a single shot revolver. The deer hunt takes the man to a larger hunt - - to understand the old woman and what compelled her to hike into the wilderness with a loaded weapon.

Underlying theme

While beasts are the advertised motif, all 10 stories have another unifying theme. Each has a character addressing a defining moment in his or her life. Garber uses literate suspense to set up the moment and lead the character to it, to keep the reader turning the pages.

In "The Uncle," a Southern family has taken in their Uncle Orlando Gillett, a retired counterintelligence agent. Gillett spends his days writing recollections of great cases on note cards and arranging them in a "great secretary" which "opened out into a miraculous triptych. From the central panel a green felt writing surface lowered like a drawbridge . . . On either side were rows and rows of cubbyholes, each filled with a green-faced box . . . with a small brass ring in the shape of a miniature lion."

The story consists of Gillett retelling to his nephew each of his cases, which are exciting and charming.

Garber said his description of the secretary was inspired by his grandfatherís desk. He wrote each of the spy adventures in this story separately and in the sequence they would have occurred in Gilletís life. Then he "cut them up and shuffled them like cards."

"The poor old man," he continued, "could not put the cases together and I wanted to give the reader a sense of what is like to confront a failing memory."

Garber capably sets the stage in the stories, which take place in Mexico, Europe, the South, coastal New England, Montana, the Midwest and Washington state.

In those along the Washington coast, you can feel the constant damp and humidity and see, in the mindís eye, the relentless sweep of green nurtured by rain and mist.

In "The Uncle," you can sense the differences in London neighborhoods; some are angular with stone buildings and a modern street grid; others, with their "closes, labyrinthine parks and fogs" are more subtle and impenetrable.

Some puzzlers

Once or twice, I was puzzled by a story. For example, ĎBeasts" is really two intertwined stories: one about a young woman and her lover living deep in the wilderness and one about a sailing ship bringing the first herd of cattle to the New World. I am still not sure how these stories are connected.

In the end, this is a quibble.

Beasts in Their Wisdom is highly recommended reading because it is filled with intriguing plots and so much good and innovative writing.

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Eugene K. Garber

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