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Jane Zwart

Insinuating Characters

Early and uncollected stories by Mavis Gallant.

Sitting around our kitchen table, an oversized spool, my family made a habit of saying grace before eating. So it happened that one night, fifteen years ago or more, letting a quart of Ragu sink through a bowl of spaghetti, my mom prayed for Irwin Chance.

It was an exquisite prayer—a set of entreaties both earnest and loquacious enough, in fact, to have a uniform effect on the rest of us supplicants. Guiltily, my brother and dad and I opened our eyes, then traded quizzical winces. To our shame, none of us could call Irwin Chance to mind.

Neither, for that matter, could we picture Irwin's brother Everett. My mom, however, eyes still shut, proceeded unfazed, widening her orison to include him, too, until, mid-plea for this reckless young man's happiness, she abruptly quit praying and began, instead, to cackle a retraction of what had been, it turned out, a fairly sustained petition for one of David James Duncan's fictional Brothers K.

Now, I don't recount this story because The Brothers K and The Cost of Living plot either story or sentence in similar ways. Indeed, other reviewers over the years have already done the work of lining up better literary kin for Mavis Gallant, who wrote the short stories collected in The Cost of Living (as well as those collected in Home Truths and The Pegnitz Junction and so on). They link her, for example, to Henry James or Anton Chekhov.

What's more, I am not about to suggest that Gallant's readers have a fair chance of praying for the characters who inhabit her Early and Uncollected Stories. Since, after all, we are slow to pray for people who strike us as vain or snide or petty, and because we do not often heap benisons on the cavalier and the parsimonious, The Cost of Living leaves us little promising fodder for prayer. Gauche or washed-up, the ignoble constitute a majority in Gallant's fictional world, and, even where the writer handles her characters decorously, she is not gentle with them.

Take her delicately barbed depiction of ...

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