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Poet Peter Meinke melds wit, wisdom in short story collection

The title of Peter Meinke's short story collection, Unheard Music, refers to the fancy of a character who prefers not to turn on his car radio because he "was most moved by the more emotional music he couldn't hear."

Such subtle emotional music, often obscured by the clamor of daily life, is the subject of many of these finely crafted stories.

Meinke is a familiar face to Tampa Bay area readers. He is an emeritus professor at Eckerd College, where he directed the writing workshop for many years. He and his wife, Jeanne, an accomplished artist, live in St. Petersburg.

Meinke's first collection of short fiction, The Piano Tuner, won the Flannery O'Connor award in 1986. But he is best known as a poet, having published 15 volumes of poetry, seven of them in the prestigious Pitt Poetry Series.

A poet's sensibility certainly shapes many of these stories, from their spare and concentrated language to the elegant, ironic twists that power their plots.

In The House, a young boy growing up in poverty stumbles upon a vision of serene domestic beauty that makes him think of "Dorothy when she first looked out of her black and white world into the gorgeous colors of Oz" — and drives him, helplessly, into a life of crime.

The clever A Woman Like That also revolves around a house. A lonesome widower moves to St. Petersburg and meets a lively, enchanting woman. Their romance dazzles him, although her urgent desire for him to buy a house they can live in together makes him uneasy. Turns out he wasn't nearly uneasy enough.

Some of the stories borrow from popular genres, like the title tale, a dark fantasy about a man who is losing the ability to tell whether he is dreaming or awake — a serious question when he dreams of killing a man. The Actors is a breezy, murderous little story about what happens when a man and a woman pretend for too long to be the perfect couple: the perfect crime.

Others put what could be stereotypical characters into unexpected situations. The Expert Witness begins with a hit-and-run accident that leaves a schoolteacher severely brain-damaged, because of a hospital's negligence. A busy lawyer, Philip, takes the victim's case reluctantly, only because his social worker wife urges him to help the man's penniless mother.

Groping for a way to wangle a bigger settlement, he discovers that the victim wrote poetry. Soon a respected poet is praising it as worthy of publication — and telling Philip in the same breath it's worthless: "We have too many poets already." His sour grapes send Philip off on a most unlikely crusade.

In most of the stories, communication is a theme — what one person says is often startlingly different from what the other person hears. That peril is magnified when the people involved come from different countries and cultures, as in The Salon de the Sea. Its main character, Paul, is an American engineer earning huge wads of money working on a new airport in Ghana. He spends some of it on Stella, a local prostitute, a calmly dignified young woman devoted to her little son.

Soon she and the boy have moved into Paul's beach house, and he imagines they're a sort of family, with no strings. When a mysterious, aggressively charming stranger literally washes up on the shore one day, Paul begins to feel the tug of jealousy. But it's not Stella who needs protection.

Culture clash comes to the dinner table in Uncle George and Uncle Stefan, in which a girl growing up in the years during and after World War II watches a friendship grow between one uncle from the German side of her family (A really German side: "Grandpa actually was a Nazi.'') and one from the Polish side.

Although they live in a time when, the narrator says, "We drank in prejudice with our mother's milk," before 1939, the two uncles could kid each other. But politics and love come between them, with unforgivable results.

Meinke's wit is sly, as dry as a good martini: One character is "a moderately successful man, much loved by everyone, as moderately successful people tend to be"; a college reunion dinner is "an assemblage of songs and jokes and expensive food served at room temperature."

He also has a deft way with a wide range of characters. This is not one of those short story collections in which the characters from one to the other are so similar the reader wonders why the author didn't just write a novel. People of many ages, genders, races and cultures are gracefully brought to life.

Meinke's older characters are wry and wise and occasionally foolish. His young ones are foolish, too, but often touching and filled with unsupported but admirable hope, like Tamara in Cucumber Season, who runs into an ex-lover at a party in Warsaw and, in one night, utterly changes her life. Her story, and the others in this wise-hearted book, are unheard music worth tuning in.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or cbancroft@sptimes.com.

Unheard Music

By Peter Meinke

Jefferson Press, 218 pages, $22.95

Meet the author

Peter Meinke will be the first writer featured in the Pen Is Mightier Series of author lectures at

Studio@620. He will talk about, read from and sign his work at

7 p.m. Saturday at the studio, 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. The free event will be moderated by St. Petersburg Times book editor Colette Bancroft. The author series continues with a talk by David Blight (A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation) at 7:30 p.m. May 15; other authors will be announced. For information, go to www.thestudioat620.com or call (727) 895-6620.

Poet Peter Meinke melds wit, wisdom in short story collection 05/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 3, 2008 4:31am]

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