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`Times Like These': Ordinary People Living the Surreal Life

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"Times Like These" by Rachel Ingalls, Graywolf ($16)


Sometimes brilliant writers simply vanish from the American publishing scene.

Don't think they haven't been writing. A check of British bookstore Web sites reveals that we're missing a 1,189-page "The Complete Short Stories" and a new novel, "Millennium People," by J.G. Ballard ("Empire of the Sun"). And Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri ("The Famished Road") has published a half-dozen books in Britain since "Songs of Enchantment," his last novel to appear here, came out in 1993.

Add to their company Rachel Ingalls, an American expatriate who has lived in London since 1965 and whose specialty in fiction is to whisk ordinary characters from their workaday existences into menacing, otherworldly realms in 40 pages flat.

Elements of Alfred Hitchcock, Roald Dahl and Shirley Jackson are at play in Ingalls' creepy-quirky tales. Still, she has a flavor distinctly her own. She's master of a no-frills prose that can build into the wildest rococo fantasy, and there's a pulsing, telegraphed strangeness to her simple declarative sentences. So what's she been up to since 1992, when her last book, "Be My Guest," appeared here?

Writing, apparently. Three of the stories in her new collection, "Times Like These," are drawn from her 1992 British collection "Black Diamond" (source for the novellas in "Be My Guest," too). The rest are from a 2000 collection, "Days Like Today."

The book's opener, "Last Act: The Madhouse," follows a typical Ingalls trajectory. Two ordinary teenagers fall in love. The boy's parents, for reasons of class snobbery, disapprove, and the mother, by intercepting the lovers' correspondence, makes this an anti-"Cyrano de Bergerac" story. By killing the affair and separating the couple, she launches her son on a years-long search for his lost love, rumored to be in an insane asylum. By story's end he's wanting to find her so badly that he's seeing whatever he wants to see - thus raising the question of who really has wound up in the "madhouse."

The other two tales from "Black Diamond" also feel familiarly Ingalls-esque, especially "Somewhere Else," about husband-and-wife travel agents "who didn't like to travel," and who, after winning a mysterious contest, abandon their shopping-mall office for a shadowy limbo that may not even be of this Earth.

The tales drawn from "Days Like Today," however, are a change of pace for Ingalls. Prompted in part by the 1990s Balkan wars, they offer some of the most intense and unnerving writing she's ever done. And they have, if anything, an even greater resonance than they did five years ago, given the ongoing conflicts in Iraq.

"Fertility," at eight pages long, is a brutal, staccato-rhythmed epic of a young girl left pregnant by her lover just before he goes to war. Disowned, abused and banished to a brothel by her family, she goes through hell. In a bizarre coda to the tale, the role that biology played in her sufferings is addressed.

In "Correspondent," the wife of a journalist covering an unnamed war grows so jealous of her husband's possible liaisons with other women that she secretly robs him of his good-luck charms just before he heads back to the front. Ingalls nails the insidious workings of jealousy and superstition on a supposedly rational mind.

Echoes of Hitchcock's film "Shadow of a Doubt" can be found in "Veterans," in which a former soldier turns up on the doorstep of the man who saved his life on the battlefield. The rescued man's mix of awkwardness and threat soon prove a bad fit for the rural American Eden where his rescuer lives.

The power of superstition is again addressed in "The Icon," while in "No Love Lost," Ingalls drops you graphically, unsparingly into the life of a family returning to their ruined home after a war. The story shifts into near-hallucinatory gear as the decent but desperate father of the family becomes aware that a quarry on the edge of town, traditionally a venue for taboo behavior, has become a place of nightmares.

Plot summaries don't do justice to the movements of Ingalls' mind or the weirdly gothic/stoic (and sometimes subversively humorous) nature of her vision. She's an American original, and kudos should go to Graywolf Press for bringing her latest work into print.


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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