February 25, 1991 12:00 PM

by Allan Gurganus

In this collection, the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All proves to be a crafty ambusher. The narratives of these nine short stories and two novellas, almost all written in the first person, tend to drift around for a few pages. Then, just about the time you’re contemplating getting up to straighten the pictures on your walls. Gurganus nails you right into the character. You’re suddenly feeling what they’re feeling, seeing what they’re seeing.

It’s an effective sucker-punch technique Gurganus uses again and again in such stories as “Condolences to Every One of Us,” in which an Ohio woman who got caught in a revolution during a cut-rate bus tour of Africa writes to the daughter of a couple of fellow travelers who lost their lives.

There’s no tricky lying-in-wait in “Nativity, Causcasian.” This piece of lace-curtain-society slapstick grabs you right off. It’s a man’s recollection of the chaos his emergence into this world occasioned, full of descriptions about the stuffy southern bridge party his mother was attending at the time: “Queen Anne furniture, ancestral portraits, actual Audubon prints thanks to forebears who, underwrote the project actually. Moroccan-bound books, maroon and gilt. Williamsburgy knickknacks, beiges, muted olive greens. A charming house chock full of lovely noise, and smokers not inhaling but hooked anyway.”

The narrators of these stories, however well-intentioned or remorseful, are still a frequently hurtful flock. But their lives are tellingly observed and more often than not Gurganus’s sensuous attention to detail gives his writing a heightened. Nabokovian flavor. (Knopf, $21.95)

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