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A twist on tough-guy fiction

AMERICAN STANDARD: Stories

By John Blair

University of Pittsburgh, $24, 179 pp

Reviewed by JOHN FREEMAN

Reading debut short story collections is a lot like going on first dates. Occasionally, you stumble upon a heartbreaker that gives you the impression that if you could just rescue it from its worst tendencies, maybe, just maybe, you'd have a winner. John Blair's American Standard is that kind of book. Buried deep beneath the influence of Hemingway, Ford, and that whole genre of tough guy fiction lurks a dark and original vision of American life trying to get out. Read the book closely and you'll catch glimpses of it.

The men and women in this grim book walk a tightrope between hope and despair, praying they've got the nerve to get to the other side. Shortcuts, as the brutal title piece reveals, are not an option. A man decides to do a little low-key marijuana transportation with his friend, a biker and petty criminal. What starts as a pleasant drive down a Florida freeway however turns into a blood bath when a drunken driver sideswipes his friend at an intersection, spewing drugs, money and motorcycle parts across the blacktop.

This swift hand of justice swoops in a little too often in these stories, as if Blair is punishing his heroes for wanting a little more out of life. The dumpy protagonist of Moving Man lands a hot date with a young woman only to be pummeled by her drunken ex-boyfriend. In Running Away, a boy and his friend hightail it to the great wide open only to get caught in a tornado. There is no open road, such stories tell us; there is no easy way out.

The best stories in American Standard eschew such melodramatic twists of fate and instead hone in on the quiet domestic moments. Two tales feature a man whose wife recently left him. At night, he sits by a lake and hears the bugs chirp, stoically absorbing the collapse of his own life. During one terrific scene, the man considers going to bed with his real estate agent, decides against it, and then comes up with those two dreaded words to explain himself: "I'm sorry."

Although Blair's flashiest gifts are in sketching a landscape _ much of this book takes place in northern Florida, and American Standard captures the sad texture of its sudden bogs and snake-ridden highway shoulders _ Blair's deepest talent lay in limning the emotional life of men. He can make them shuffle, sigh, grunt and run away with the best of them.

Where Blair differs from the tough guy fiction of old, however, is that his men don't ever completely walk away. They want that chance to explain themselves. Often times, Blair steps in and does it for them, as if he doesn't want them to miss their shot at it. That's a mistake. In the end, these stories are more effective when Blair steps back, allowing their hurt and loneliness to linger uneasily, like the stillness in the air after a flash of lightning.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.

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