Stephanie Zacharek reviews 'Circumnavigation' by Steve Lattimore.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published December 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

The great Flannery O'Connor, God bless her, is probably more responsible than any other writer for the currently relentless monsoon of badly written short stories about simple folk without good jobs, without good manners, without hope. Thank goodness that every once in a while, there's a Steve Lattimore, a writer who understands that "uneducated" doesn't necessarily mean "unintelligent," who delights in capturing people's voices instead of treating them like an experiment in understanding cultures other than Connecticut's, who doesn't hang Basic Human Decency around his characters' necks like dead weight. Lattimore's characters are neighborhood bullies, decent husbands who drink too much beer, effeminate Navy guys and tough, skinny, clairvoyant teenage girls. In this group of short stories, he isn't so much interested in their motivations as in their actions, which is what makes them seem like real people instead of creative-writing experiments. He understands that motivation, as essential as it is in good fiction, isn't something that can be diagrammed and dissected; usually, it's more like a flicker of motion that you catch out of the corner of your eye.

The stories in "Circumnavigation" are set mostly in the West, often in small cities or towns. These characters aren't consumed by big dreams; just getting by with the small ones keeps them busy enough. In "Blood Work," a disgruntled worker discovers that he actually likes his clueless, pain-in-the-ass boss. In "Family Sports," a young blackjack dealer living in Reno goes home briefly to visit her troubled family and comes to realize, with surprise but also relief, that she feels far better loved in the "casual" relationship she has with her bartender-boyfriend. And in the book's title story, an out-of-work photographer (actually, he worked one year out of his life and figures that's enough) inherits a strange, brilliant little boy as a ward. Lattimore's prose is unsentimental and shaved clean, but it also moves forward with an almost delicate tentativeness, the way a man's thumb might trace a scar on a woman's stomach: "The subliminal hiss of the TV wakes me in the middle of the night. In the living room I find the boy on the couch, lying on his back with his arms crossed over his chest the way movie Draculas sleep in their coffins. I lift his foot and drop it. 'Hey.' I take it again and shake it until his eyes snap open. What a thing to see, not at all how you'd picture a kid waking up. No face-rubbing or squirming around, just these dark little eyes waiting for an explanation."

The blurb copy on the jacket flap of "Circumnavigation" says something about the way these characters stumble toward redemption, but don't let that scare you. Lattimore's characters are stumbling toward the same thing all the rest of us are, and he knows as well as we do that the day you can hang a convenient name on it is the day you stop stumbling toward it. Meanwhile, you might as well live -- and on his pages, these people do.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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