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By J. Bottum

The Unexplained Life

"The Collected Stories"

By Evan S. Connell


675 pp.; $30

There is a kind of story people tell, drunkenly in bars at night or stone-cold sober on daytime television talk-shows, that folds the whole of life into a usable packet--a master-story that makes it all make sense: "I do the things I do, I am the way I am, because I had a broken home, or because I was a middle child, or because I come from Tennessee, or because I didn't win my school game, or because . . ."

The story-writer Evan Connell knows that people tell such stories. His characters are always on the hunt for them: swapping them with one another, demanding them from one another, trying them on for size. But, at the same time, Connell refuses to believe in master-stories, refuses to believe that stories master life. And that makes storytelling a hard row to hoe. It may be the best measure of just how good a writer Connell is that he usually finds a way to tell his stories anyway.

With the success of his 1984 nonfiction account of General Custer, "Son of the Morning Star," and the recent filming of his 1959 novel, "Mrs. Bridge" (combined in the Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward movie with its 1969 sequel, "Mr. Bridge"), Connell has at last begun to receive popular recognition outside the academic writing community. The publication of his "Collected Stories"--56 stories in all, running from his late-1940s stories about naval pilots to a sour 1995 New Yorker satire on the life of a literary lion--may owe something to this recent surge of recognition. But it gives the reader an excellent chance to judge his lifetime of work.

Born in 1924, a year before Flannery O'Connor and seven years after J. F. Powers, Connell is one of the last remaining representatives of that first generation of American writers to attend college writing programs. Reaching a judgment about his 40 years of writing would be easier had Connell arranged his collection of stories chronologically, and longtime readers of his fiction equally with ...

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