Purgatory, U.S.A.

Date: April 18, 1999, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Gary Krist

By Dale Ray Phillips.
190 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company. $22.95.


MANY critics, when trying to praise a short-story collection, will say that it has the heft and scope of a good novel. But for me one of the highest compliments you can pay a novel is to say that it has the rich texture and eloquent detail of a good story collection. In the last two decades, it's been the short story that has given us the more nuanced picture of the way we live now -- the ironic rhythms of our speech, the casual heartbreak of our small domestic failures, the twisted warp and woof of our daily moral compromises. Future historians trying to determine what it was like to be alive in fin de millennium America should read the last two decades of O. Henry and Best American short-story collections. Granted, novels like those of Don DeLillo and Russell Banks might provide a broader view of our philosophical and social landscape, but it's the stories that peer directly into our houses.

For any such historian cruising the electronic archives of, say, the third millennium A.D., I have another piece of advice: add ''My People's Waltz'' to your reading list. This first collection of stories by Dale Ray Phillips presents, in just 190 pages, as comprehensive and heartfelt a portrait of contemporary American fecklessness as you're likely to find. Phillips's stories, Southern in pedigree but somehow Western in sensibility, trace the history of a family of bighearted sinners over several decades of drunken squabbles, bad debts, hapless loves and disastrous fishing trips. Narrated by the biggest-hearted sinner of them all -- Richard, a soulful misfit whose good intentions never seem to get him very far -- these are stories of ''a stock of people who dance in their kitchens,'' grasping at brief moments of happiness amid lives they keep reinventing but just can't help ruining. Victims of their oversized appetites, they try to live and love within appropriate bounds but always wind up hurting one another. In the end, all that survives unscathed is their misguided capacity for hope.

In ''What It Cost Travelers,'' for instance, Richard is passing time on the Gulf Coast of Texas, selling counterfeit trailer lot deeds during a trial separation from his wife. As a swindler, Richard leaves much to be desired. He drinks too much, sleeps with the married woman posing as his secretary and loses a wallet containing his real ID. Before long, he's making his usual hash of things. But even in this purgatory, Richard finds moments of benediction. While kissing his mistress's two sleeping children, he is reminded of a day early in his marriage when, after making love to his wife in a living room chair, he sneaked outside to watch her sleeping form through the window: ''The slipcover of the chair still held our rough imprint, and the scented candles Lisa lit for such occasions reminded me of hopeful birthdays. . . . A neighbor walking by to check his mail at the bottom of the mountain hailed me. Did he think I was checking for cracked panes or air leaks, or had he ever walked outside his own happiness and cased it like a burglar?''

Sometimes Phillips tries too hard, overloading his prose with symbolic gesture and elegiac reflection. In ''Why I'm Talking,'' an 8-year-old Richard is spirited away to a trailer in the North Carolina woods while his mother recovers from a failed suicide attempt. Living there with his grandfather and the old man's secret ''floozy,'' Richard decides to stop speaking, hoping that his silence might act as ''a protective measure against the force that scattered the things I loved.'' But when his father turns up with a floozy of his own, Richard has to decide whether the cause of family harmony is better served by silence or by lies. ''Why I'm Talking'' is a lovely story in most of its particulars -- especially its evocation of the rural South of the 1960's -- but toward the end, amid much oratory about deceptions and twice-told tales, the action veers into contrivance: after watching his grandfather die of a violent heart attack, Richard finds himself picking up the old man's severed tongue and putting it to his own lips. And when his mother finally arrives (after both mistresses have been carefully hidden away), the boy starts speaking again, but in a new voice -- one that ''love had taught to deceive.''

Luckily, such moments of M.F.A.-style artiness are rare; more often, Phillips concludes on a note of powerful and utterly genuine emotion. I tend to be suspicious of any story that ends with the birth of a child -- the inevitable flood of high-toned rhetoric and amniotic fluid trips my sentimentality alarm -- but in ''Everything Quiet Like Church'' Phillips brings off the feat with assurance. The secret, as usual, is in the details -- here in the form of a half-blind midwife's assistant who compels Richard to face his lack of faith while she trounces him at a twilight game of horseshoes. ''How could someone connect with something they couldn't see?'' Richard asks himself as she scores ringer after ringer. But by the time his son is born, he has discovered his own answer to that question when he is forced to place faith in his dubious future as the head of a family.

There is a historical motif that crops up several times in the book -- the story of some early English settlers who tried to establish an island colony -- and it serves as a gloss on the luckless lives chronicled in Phillips's stories: ''According to legend, the ill-fated first colonists had searched for gold and bickered instead of planting crops and securing their precarious position at Manteo. When winter arrived without Sir Walter Raleigh's supply ships, they were either killed in a surprise Indian attack or forced to wander inland and lose themselves amidst whatever grace a wilderness had to offer.''

Like those ''Lost Colonists'' who squandered all their chances for prosperity, the characters in ''My People's Waltz'' are continually betrayed by their unruly natures. Their failures may seem pathetic at times, but what's most surprising in this memorable collection is how, in even the most tangled wilderness, they manage to eke out a small harvest of grace.

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