New Prize-Winning Stories Take On an Old Problem

by Ellen S. Wilson

Edith Pearlman says her characters are "people in peculiar circumstances aching to Do The Right Thing if only they can figure out what The Right Thing is." Pearlman is the newest winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, awarded annually by the University of Pittsburgh Press for a collection of short stories by a previously published writer. With Pearlman's wide range of characters and settings, almost the only thing that lets the reader know the stories were all written by the same person is the presence of that moral question. The dilemma of how to react to the horrible or merely distressing challenges life poses afflicts everyone from a minister of health in a tumultuous Hispanic country, to the manager of a soup kitchen for women in Boston.

In the title story, Señora Marta Perera de Lefkowitz has some idea of how she will escape her increasingly dangerous position as minister of health in a country rattled by gunfire and insurgencies, but her concern for her own safety is unfocused at best. She has confronted too many threats and tragedies already to take this present one too seriously, and she is too old to feel she has much to lose. As a Polish Jew who survived World War II by hiding in a barn, her attitude now is that life is a gift. Her strong moral sense, however, prods her to one final attempt to fulfill her own private mission, a comic and absurd gesture that will, if heeded, encourage breastfeeding among the poor and slow the growth of the population. Her struggle is not to figure out what is right-she has a finely developed sense of right-but only how to use her dwindling authority for a good end.

In a series of stories, the proprietor of Donna's Ladle struggles not with her own convictions as much as with the expectations of the people who love her. Most of them don't believe their Donna should run a soup kitchen and live so humbly herself, nor should she insist on having her wedding in the soup kitchen with the clients as honored guests.

In one story, which exemplifies the depths Pearlman can reach with apparently minimal plot, Donna and her colleagues must deal with the dirty reality of a broken toilet. The work of Donna's Ladle is not romanticized, and the job of unclogging a recalcitrant toilet is described in the same unstinting terms used for the patrons of the Ladle. Here, for example, is Roxanne, a steady customer: "fanged, whiskered, dressed in layers of ragged clothing. One of her eyes was blind. She smoked a yellow pipe. Roxanne removed the pipe from her mouth only to eat or to announce current events to the air around her." These women have physical, emotional or mental illnesses, no safe or clean place to sleep and few opportunities to wash themselves. The bathrooms at Donna's Ladle are very important.

The problem with this particular toilet, which is more than just routinely stopped up, is to keep it from being used from the Monday on which it fails, to the Friday when the pro bono plumber says he might get to it. The patrons find such things as Out of Order signs a challenge. "The women don't like rules, but they do respect privacy," comments one staff member, so they put a pair of boots in front of the toilet to make it appear to be occupied. There is plenty of cast-off clothing available at the Ladle, and what begins as a practical solution becomes a game and something more, as the three staff members manufacture an elaborate dummy complete with a copy of Thucydides on her lap and a stuffed, stitched-on face: "It was specific and horrible. The eyes were sunken beneath the rounded brow. The nose was off center, as if struck too often. The scarlet lips were sullen. A blob of blue eye shadow on one cheek provided a bruise."

The dummy, named Dorothea, remains in place throughout the week, and the women feel a bit of remorse at what they perceive as their mockery of the clientele. By the end of the week, when it is time to take her apart, they discover that she has been enhanced-a pint of whiskey in one pocket, a syringe in the other, and a pair of shears driven into one hip. The women lay Dorothea's remains in the dumpster and then conduct a postmortem: "We meant no harm," says one. "They meant no harm, either." Donna and her colleagues stand around the dumpster examining their motives, finding solace finally in small victories-one regular client's sister has taken her in, a grant has been received: "Thus they improvised their way toward recovery."

Donna is a rich and multi-faceted character, likable and admirable. The four stories about her are welcome, a novella that satisfies the hunger a good story inspires for more of the same.

Pearlman's strength is her character development, and her mostly conventional style serves her talents well. A more experimental tale is "The Cook," which is set in a temporary refuge for homeless children in South or Central America, most of them orphaned by the violence that pervades their country. The cook's job is to fatten up these unprotected children, restore them to health so that their organs may be transplanted into the ailing bodies of wealthier citizens. As he ponders the fate of one rosy-cheeked boy, he "can imagine him escorted into a scrubbed alabaster room with gleaming equipment. In a similar room on the other side of the tiled wall lies, say, the daughter of a planter, a lovely girl afflicted with diseased kidneys, or an enlarged heart. . . . Does my boy feel the presence of the sleeping princess whose life will be saved by a peasant lad?" The image is horrifying, a nightmare fairy tale for which conventional style may be inadequate.

Pearlman's collection of 15 stories is a chorus of diverse voices clamoring for attention. Told primarily in the third person, each one invites you to settle in for 20 minutes or so, then releases you with a new take on an old problem-what to do? The answer, it seems in these stories, lies in the question itself. n

Ellen S. Wilson is the book review editor for Carnegie Magazine.