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Slices of Life 

New short-story collections offer hope, convincing detail and a bit of unchecked despair

Amongst a recent slew of short-story collections are included three books worth mentioning, and perhaps even reading.

Marian Thurm proves herself master of the short story form in What's Come Over You?, her seventh book, and third story collection. Thurm achieves the perfect balance of bittersweet humor and poignant observation, hitting home time after time. She portrays her theme of people dealing with broken homes from every conceivable angle (and a few inconceivable); her wealth of ideas becomes almost exhausting. How can a single writer come up with this many variations?

There is little action here; the drama arises from the friction created when things fall apart. Thurm does not provide solutions, but does seem to want to say that self-discovery is produced by adversity. Many of her wonderful and imperfect characters are redeemed, and sometimes they even benefit from the same insight the reader is given.

So many of her stories are to be recommended. With "Moonlight," the story and book kick off with an indelible comic scene in which a wife publicly breaks up with her rabbi husband. A sweeter and more tragic narrator than this rabbi would be hard to find, but his psychic scars do not stop the story from ending on a hopeful note.

In so many comical and seemingly simple vignettes, Thurm sends messages that bypass the intellect and hit us square in the gut. Walter, the sad anti-hero grandfather of the story "Earthbound," has so much trouble with the inevitable change that happens as life moves forward. In one scene, he reluctantly plays Big Bird to entertain a children's birthday party:

He stood up and flapped his arms listlessly. "Anybody want to touch my feathers?" He moved his arms more vigorously. "Come on, guys," he said. "How do you think this makes me feel? I flew all the way here from Sesame Street and you're not paying any attention to me."

"You said you can't fly," the girl in the bikini reminded him. "You said."

"What I meant was, I can't fly on my own like other birds. I flew here in an airplane."

The girl gave him a contemptuous look. "You're a big fat liar," she said. "You can fly but you just don't want to."

"Big Bird doesn't lie," said Walter.

We love Walter, we hate Walter, we cringe at Walter. We must admire Thurm's genius.

In "Passenger," a mother and daughter spend their lives together in the mother's taxicab. Comical, throwaway exchanges like the following tell us more about the people talking than about what they observe:

"Damn," Lacey says, and watches as the witch and her friend disappear down Broadway, their hands shoved into the back pockets of each other's jeans.

"There'll be other witches," her mother says. "Don't feel too badly."

The book includes several other standout stories, including "Cold," "Like Something in This World," "Pleasure Palace," and "Housecleaning." Walking the fine line between dark farce and romantic tragedy, in What's Come Over You?, Thurm has come into her own as one of the finest short-story writers going.

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Rancher, writer, doctor and Coloradan, Robert Greer is well-known to readers of mysteries and medical thrillers. His first story collection, Isolation and Other Stories, introduces us to the literary fiction side of Dr. Greer.

A closet-cleaning of sorts, this collection consists of works written, and mostly published, from 1987 to the present, all heretofore uncollected. Greer demonstrates a keen ear for the way people talk, and a gift for capturing slices of indigenous life in small-town America, especially the West, circa anytime post-war.

In the seriocomic story "The Ride," Greer shows the black-male rituals of the early '60s. The vernacular is dead-on. The story "Spoon" is a coming-of-age tale set on a ranch, with a bigger-than-life title character whose interactions with the young narrator are reminiscent of the best work of Jim Harrison and Pam Houston.

"The Can Men" is funny and touching, humanizing the homeless through a tale of friendship and survival. One wonders how Greer comes by such a convincing portrayal of dumpster diving. Perhaps it is better not to ask. Through "The Real Thing," a beautifully rendered realistic fantasy, we are convinced that music can be a cure for racism, or at least a damned good Band-Aid.

Some of Greer's stories are not fully realized; a few are skeletons that seem to try to say more than they do, such as the title story and "Revision." "Choosing Sides" is well-meaning but clunky. When Greer works harder, he succeeds in making us forget we're reading a book. Fortunately the majority of the stories in this book achieve the goal of taking us into their times and places; Greer's busman's holiday is mostly a success. Also notable is the inclusion throughout the book of very appropriate sketches by Denver artist Jeff Hall III.

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Astronauts & Other Stories, the debut by Matthew Iribarne is somewhat of a disappointment. Iribarne is a confident, competent writer, capable of telling a story and developing believable dialogue, but his dry, longish stories deliver far less than they promise. There are so many brooding metaphors and so much dripping symbolism that when the stories reveal themselves to be simply stories, the unfulfilled buildup leaves us resentful.

Iribarne writes well of despair. Clearly he wants to be Russell Banks. But most of his characters are not that interesting, and are not likely to be remembered past the ending of the respective story in which they reside. It is telling that in almost every story the automobile plays a pivotal role, and the reader is more likely to remember the different cars than the humans who drive or repair them. Furthermore, depressing material runs the risk of becoming dull if not leavened by some hope or love or some such emotion.

But then, toward the end of the book, just as we've given up hope and are contemplating paper-cutting our wrists with the convenient dust jacket, Iribarne comes up with a couple of gems. The story "The Clear Blue Water" has something to say, and says it well, while "Ross Willow's New and Used Cars" is simply wonderful, working on so many levels to make the heartbreak ring deep and true. Here, Iribarne mixes in some humor with the tragedy, and is thus much more successful.

Maybe Iribarne's age, or lack thereof (he looks to be about 25 in his jacket photo), leaves him with little to tell us. His press compares Iribarne to Nathan Englander, Jhumpa Lahiri and Lorrie Moore; well, compared to them, he's not such a good story writer. Perhaps, as he ages, he'll be able to turn his obvious talent to actual revelation. At this point, he's like a campaigning politician: We don't know yet if his promise will be kept.

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