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I Can't Go On, I'll Go Nuts
Date of Review: 
Published Work: 
Craig Seligman
New York Times Book Review

WHATEVER troubles me about the nine stories in Adam Haslett's first collection, or about the sensibility of their youngish author (he's in his early 30's), has nothing to do with quality -- let me make that clear. You should buy this book, you should read it, and you should admire it as much as I do. There's not a clinker in the group, and this consistency, along with the maturity and the austerity and the exceptional tact of the writing, gives every indication that unless something goes radically haywire, ''You Are Not a Stranger Here'' is the herald of a phenomenal career. But who knows? As it happens, Haslett has just finished his second year at Yale Law School. He can hear his calling better than I can.

Yet while it's easy to laud the collection and to foresee a future of laurels for its author, this is not a debut you should envy. Haslett may have talent to burn and the grades to get him into Yale, but his prose exudes a desolation so choking that it can come only from somewhere deep inside. These are short stories that T. S. Eliot or Samuel Beckett might have come up with if they'd written conventional fiction about middle-class people. But then Eliot had his Christianity and Beckett his I-can't-go-on-I'll-go-on resolve. Haslett has despair. And I don't mean the histrionic despair of discouraged youth. He writes stories of loss and illness, especially mental illness, and peoples them with the vanquished, the crazy and the soon to die -- characters for whom there's no redemption. Not that they need redeeming, exactly. They're mostly good people, people with the will to do good who, amid all the misery they've been handed, have held on to their souls. Hopelessness hasn't scarred them with cynicism or rage. If there's a ray of light in these stories, here it is.

Haslett writes like a man inured to disappointment -- that is, like a man in middle age. In fact, he's never more convincing than when his characters are older, as in the two showpieces of the collection, the opening story, ''Notes to My Biographer,'' and the final one, ''The Volunteer.'' The latter, the most recently written of the nine, shows the author moving in the direction of the novel (and he's said he's got one in mind): it has a double point of view, overlapping plot lines and enough incident to fill considerably more than its 44 pages. It also has an emotion that cuts even deeper than the desiccating bleakness of most of the others: a beautiful, fully earned, lump-in-the-throat sadness. The story follows the friendship of a mature schizophrenic and the heartsick high school volunteer who visits her in the institution where she's voluntarily incarcerated herself (so the title could refer to either of them). As you read you don't know who's got it harder, the young or the old -- there's an almost comical parity in the parceling out of grief.

Two adjacent stories treat physical illness. ''Reunion'' (another title with multiple meanings) offers a dryly humane portrait of a young Englishman dying of AIDS. (Haslett was partly educated in Britain, and four of the nine stories are set there.) ''War's End,'' in which a suicidally depressed man finds himself drawn into the orbit of a grotesquely suffering child, is among the riskiest of the stories in its open flirtation with sentimentality; it might easily tumble over the edge if bleakness weren't such a reliable prophylactic against tears. ''The Beginnings of Grief,'' one of several gay-themed stories as well as one of several that involve orphanhood, centers on the masochistic entanglement into which a bereaved high school kid manipulates the angry classmate he has a crush on. ''Devotion,'' the story immediately following, is about orphaned adults -- a middle-aged English brother and sister who, years after falling in love with the same man, have only each other; the final twist is clever, pathetic and almost achingly wise.