Life Lines 

Bloom Meanders Through The Raw Realities Of Life.

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom. Random House, $22.95.

THE TITLE A Blind Man Could See How Much I Love You could be appended And Other Ironies of Contemporary Affection. Amy Bloom's genteelly raw little book just isn't your mother's collection of love stories.

They're survival tales. Banners barely flutter over the effects of cancer and Parkinson's, of stillbirth and gender confusion. They're "step" tales--of duty and devotion over blood and racial ties. And they're tales of the triumph of illicit romance.

Amy Bloom's stories have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Antaeus, Story, Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Her bio for the 1994 O. Henry Awards reads, "I wrote about the things that scare me (lingering illnesses), the things that charm me (the ways women care for each other through beauty trivia) and the things I believe (fidelity is not about where you put your body)." The same principles seem to hold for this work.

The focus in "Rowing to Eden" is on care givers. Friends since college, Charley and lesbian best friend Ellie look on as Charley's beautiful wife Mai undergoes chemotherapy for breast cancer. Bloom takes a direct-gaze, practical, cancer's-part-of-life-so-get-with-the-program approach; her characters grouse and joke and drink too much and blur lines of social identity and get on with living. Illness strips away pretense and there's comfort in the getting on.

Emotional coolness complicated by sexual ambiguity is central to the Mai-Charley-Ellie story. Central to the title story is emotional ferocity tested by sexual mis-identity. "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You" presents a woman so proud of her gutsy daughter she's oblivious to all other children ... and to her own reality--that she wants a sex change. When she fails to talk daughter Jessie into lesbianism, she marshals her good breeding and marches right through hormone therapy to implantation. Bloom's eye for detail and her sandpaper humor mitigate potential discomfort for both narrator and reader. The gender identity therapy group, for example, features a character called RoBoCop with his son "Malibu Barbie"; a pimply, overweight girl "going into manhood"; and the "Transgender Avengers," founded to vindicate the historically disrespected.

A pair of related stories occupies the center of the collection. "Night Vision" takes place when narrator Lionel returns to his stepmother's house in the U.S. after 15 years in France. In tow are not only his French girlfriend and her daughter, but also the specter of his last meeting with his stepmother--a sexual intimacy the day following his father's funeral. "Light into Dark" occurs on another of Lionel's returns to the U.S.--six years later, two wives poorer and a stepson richer. At the pace of a leisurely family Thanksgiving, it becomes an examination of step-families ("workable," Lionel comments, "only with people whose commitment and loyalty are much greater than the average"), the existence of Lionel's and his stepmother's one night having seared and soldered their lives.

No grand action occurs in these stories; they're character and relationship studies. The final entry turns the tables on the reader, however, and evolves into a study of the nature of fiction and the need to create it. Called "The Story," it begins innocuously: A widow meets the handsome new neighbors and their toddler. The character cheerfully relates how she begins to do books and babysit for the Dr. and Mr. "Golddusts," and then the "writer" steps into the middle of the story. As if she'd turned on the house lights and exposed a stage set, the storyteller suddenly becomes the story: "Addressing" the reader, she tells how she selected character names, how she'd longed to skewer a Mrs. "Golddust" type; how she turned characters against each other; how--in essence--she snags daughter, husband and big house, and still manages to make the wife look bad ... as she reshapes personal disappointment.

"Sophisticated readers," the narrator says, "understand that writers work out their anger, their conflicts, their endless grief and rolling list of loss, through their stories .... I," she concludes, "am not harmless."

But, judging by this collection, neither is Amy Bloom talentless or heartless. While life outside the immediate action seems somewhat vague (jazz-lovers play little jazz; the interior designer doesn't seem to design), her characters are nonetheless drawn with flair and nuance. Without gloss or unrealistic optimism, without expectation of divine intervention or epiphany, they face life's trials, snarl at them, toss a quip or tip a goblet, and soldier on. There's redemption in that. And worthwhile reading.

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