June 13, 1988 12:00 PM

by Mary Gaitskill

This intriguingly tart collection of short stories—Gaitskill’s first—is a peculiar mix of wryly expressed alienation and urban true grit. In one tale, Daisy, a secondhand-bookstore clerk, is the indifferent object of the affections of her colleague Joey, who is tired of his unresponsive Bennington College girlfriend. As he tries to work himself into a passion over Daisy, saying, “I want to cast my mantle of protection over you,” she tries to cool him off: “I have to tell you some things about myself,” she says. “I don’t take admiration very well.” In “Connection,” Susan reminisces about her long relationship with Leisha and can’t decide if they were best friends or enemies. She recalls Leisha saying, “I still feel the effects of those phone conversations we used to have when you would call me and say that you felt like dying.” “Wait a minute,” Susan had replied. “Don’t you remember when you’d call me at 6 a.m. and tell me that I had to come over right away or you were going to kill yourself?” Then there is Stephanie, the hooker—magazine writer protagonist of “Trying to Be,” whose client Bernard listens as she talks about wanting to be loved: “For a second, he looked as though she had said something truly strange. Then his face smoothed over with fatherly tenderness. He stroked her cheek. ‘You really are a classic,’ he said. ‘You don’t look it, but you are.’ ” All the stories are set in New York, and they may tend to dwell on the downwardly mobile because Gaitskill, 33, has had experience in that area. A Michigander, she moved to New York in 1981 and survived by working as a typist-proofreader, panhandler and stripper while accumulating these stories and waiting to be discovered (by, as it turned out, Simon and Schuster editor Kathleen Anderson Mooney). The collection sometimes seems like too much of a bad thing; two stories about hookers’ relationships with favorite middle-class clients is one too many. Most of the time, though, Gaitskill is hardly predictable. While her characters rarely seem to have achieved very much—a lesbian relationship in one story is the only real triumph of romance—few of them have given up; most are surprisingly admirable. They are like people who have just fallen into a bottomless pit but are determined to make the most of the scenery on the way down and maybe even scare up a clever bit of graffiti or two. (Poseidon, $15.95)

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