DEAR LIFE: Stories. By Alice Munro. Knopf. 319 pages. $26.95.
The first story of Alice Munro’s first short-story collection is the semi-autobiographical “Walker Brothers Cowboy.”
How fitting that 44 years later the pieces of Munro’s subsequent fiction should be so recognizable in its beginnings: the cheerful, feckless father; the awkward, socially aspiring mother; the child on the periphery of the central adult action, which is sexual. Always, in a Munro story, shame and betrayal hover, but the girl hero can galvanize herself to break away. She rushes toward what’s strange and opens her future.
In “Dear Life,” her new collection, Munro still is dealing in dreamers, not the glossy kind who strut their ambitions but the quiet ones who learn early to protect their secret desires from public scrutiny, until the time comes to act. Now 81, Munro has created a world that we recognize as uniquely her own — the way we talk about Kafkaesque or Proustian or Jamesian stories.
The tone of Munro’s stories is by now familiar to her readers: they’re vivid and inventive, ironical, acutely observant — down to the nubby, material details — and they portray what can seem to be a narrow range of experience. The typical Munro hero lives a clipped life; in some way things haven’t worked out ideally for her, but she approaches her circumstances with good humor, imagination and sometimes wild fantasies.
“To Reach Japan,” the opening story of “Dear Life” is a model of Munrovian artistry. The story opens as a husband is loading his wife and daughter onto a train. Almost 30 pages later, they deboard. Between departure and arrival, Munro inhabits the mind of Greta, a poet who begins to think obsessively of a Toronto journalist who gave her a ride home from a party: “the dream was a lot like the Vancouver weather — a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness.” The man, oddly, told her that he thought of kissing her but changed his mind. Still, when she is ready to break away, it is he to whom she writes: “Writing this letter is like putting a note in a bottle/And hoping/It will reach Japan.”
The long-shot grab at happiness is pure Munro. So, too, is the ending, where Munro shifts emphasis to the daughter. Suddenly, an unlikely love story has becomes something else, a mother-daughter story. We are left watching little Katy: “She just stood waiting for whatever had to happen next.”
Munro’s neat sentences with their sudden shifts and outbursts of feeling (Greta, catching her freedom on the train, is “buoyant, like a gladiator”) get right to the core of human relationship — its rewards but also its imbalances. One person’s freedom may mean another person’s captivity. Children especially can be trapped in the stories of others.
“Gravel” features another mother who has “shed everything” and taken her children with her to a trailer beside a gravel pit. While her daughters stay awake at night trying to remember the manicured lawn and wallpapered bedroom of their old house, the mother announces that she and her boyfriend will be having a baby to be named Brandy, boy or girl. Munro isn’t one to look down her nose at the dreamy mother, who senses a threat to her new life (she’s worried about wolves) but can’t locate the true source. When disaster comes, the narrating child sits down and, like Katy in “Japan,” waits “for the next thing to happen.”
“Dear Life” ends with a quartet of “not quite stories” that Munro calls her Finale. She writes, “They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.” The final four stories are rich with remembered flashes of life in the Canadian country around Lake Huron in the 1930s and ’40s — but the real treat and centerpiece of each is a moment when Munro’s young imagination transports her out of ordinary reality.
Together, the stories form an artistic testament. Whether she’s looking in a casket and seeing the eye of a dead person move or fearing that she might strangle her little sister in the night, Munro is the inventor who, like so many characters in her stories, dreams herself into a new life.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.