D.T. Max reviews 'Pilgrims' by Elizabeth Gilbert

Published December 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Elizabeth Gilbert has made her reputation with her nonfiction magazine articles. Now, with the stories in "Pilgrims," she proves herself a capable, if at times uneven, fiction writer too.

Gilbert's favorite theme in both genres is women in the land of men, but in covering this terrain in fiction, she bows a bit too deeply before the macho shrine of Papa Hemingway. Consider the title story, with its fertile premise that Buck, a young cowboy, has a crush on Martha, an alluring Eastern girl hired to work on his father's ranch. At the story's climax, Buck and Martha sit before a campfire, having led a group of Sunday hunters on an elk shoot in the mountains. "Talk about a bunch of pilgrims," Martha comments. "These guys have never even been in a backyard." She and Buck of course are also, as the story hints a bit too insistently, on unfamiliar territory. Here's a key moment, narrated by Buck: "She handed me the bottle again, and this time I drank. We did not talk for a long time ... and when the fire got low, Martha Knox put more wood on it ... In October up there it isn't easy to be warm and I would not pull away from that kind of heat too fast."

Some of the other stories seem more like journalism lightly fictionalized, but there's a real treat waiting at the end: the final tale, "The Finest Wife." In it, Rose, a 70-ish school bus driver, finds her route filled one dreamy day with the lovers of her promiscuous youth. The narrator explains that before her marriage "she had ... a taste for certain types of church-going men and also for left-handed men, and for servicemen, fishermen, postmen, assemblymen, firemen, highwaymen, elevator repairmen, and the Mexican busboys at the restaurant where she worked."

As she drives on, these old lovers pile in, each still appreciative. Then her husband boards, and everyone makes room for him. Without irony, they congratulate him on his luck. The bus pulls to a stop at a railroad crossing, and, as the busload of elders dozes off, a series of train cars with words on them, "a continuing, alphabetical account of all of a life's ingredients," pass by. This is a wonderful story, lithe, wise and gently surreal. It is also, as it happens, the only story in this collection that could not have begun in a journalist's notebook. It is, in the best sense of the word, pure fiction.

By D.T. Max


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Books Elizabeth Gilbert