Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, $12 (paper)
Peter Ho Davies’s first collection, The Ugliest House in the World, was almost dizzying in its geographic breadth, with stories set in Wales, the English Midlands, east Africa, Kuala Lumpur, and Patagonia. Place is much less important in his new Equal Love, where all the stories are set either in England or the United States. Indeed place is sometimes so understated you might be well into a story before you can determine which country you are in, and only a native locution is the clue. Lacking geographic definition, the book is undergirded by its recurring thematic motive: imbalanced family relations, between husband and wife (in "The Hull Case" and "Cakes of Baby"), siblings (in "On the Terraces"), parent and child (in almost all the other stories).

More particularly, Davies is preoccupied by what he calls the "sandwich generation," couples who in many ways remain children to their own living parents but who now have children of their own. He underlines the dilemma of such characters with an epigraph from E. M. Forster: "For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and–by some sad, strange irony–it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy." Because Forster is right, Davies’s characters are not wonderfully happy, and the pathos and squalor of life are his subject. Under such conditions, equal love is ever elusive.

With geography of little importance, and social casting confined to the middle class, Davies must depend on character and point of view for his variations on the parent-child theme. In his best stories, those are his strong suits, and he uses men, women, and children of all ages as his personae. The endearing and amusing "Brave Girl" explores the consequences of divorce from the first-person perspective of a dentist’s young daughter. She speaks as much about her father’s practice–his "surgery"–as she does about the emotional and logistic upheavals in her life. Before she leaves him to live with her newly constituted family, he extracts a loose baby tooth she has. Afterwards she drinks milk through a straw and is "distracted that the straw had a hole in it." She realizes the straw is lying in the gap in her teeth as she hears her father say, " ‘We shall see each other on weekends and holidays.’ " Later she puts her finger in that gap and checks the rest of her teeth, "grabbing them one by one … tugging, testing to see how firm they were." The symbolism is so obvious here you almost don’t forgive the story; it is finally the narrator’s charm–her ingenuousness–that saves it. Indeed Davies is frequently at his best with either children or first-person narration.

A story about children with more than charm to recommend it is "Frogmen." In this small but acutely observed psychological study a group of cunning youngsters feign grief over the disappearance (and presumed drowning) of a playmate to manipulate their parents into buying them new toys and pets. It’s the most darkly humorous of all the stories and in it Davies conjures up a cynical little world of emotional blackmail and, ultimately, shame and sorrow. Reducing the adults to minor figures gives the story further authority and distinction. This separates it from a more conventional story like "Sales," in which a Willy Lomanesque divorced father lies about having a girlfriend (he says he does) to keep his ex-wife from believing the truth–that he is incomplete both as man and father. That story never quite gels, and once the lie is in place it follows a too predictable line. The father’s failure is clear very early on, and little else qualifies it. "Today Is Sunday," which originally appeared in the Atlantic, is even less satisfying; as a narrative it’s little more than an anecdote, an idea for a story. "Small World" and the title piece, both concerned with differing degrees of marital infidelity, are much more solid accomplishments and make for illuminating companion pieces.

The two most commanding stories, however, have nothing to do with love affairs, divorce, or parent-child relations. "The Hull Case," the opening story, is a subtle exploration of an interracial marriage in New England in the early 1960s. In it a couple report to an air force colonel that they were taken aboard an alien spaceship to be meticulously scrutinized by extra-terrestrials. Based on an actual UFO case, the story gradually reveals that the couple–black man, white woman–feel alien on this planet, to the point that the woman begins to shape her whole identity around the alleged incident. In a book filled with objective correlatives, this one is Davies’s most original and striking. "On the Terraces" likewise uses deft symbolism, to define the sympathetic difficulties of one man as he tries to understand his gay brother, who is dying of AIDS. The brother seems to have found full sexual satisfaction in anonymous episodes in public toilets, and this is something the narrator cannot comprehend. It’s a surprisingly tender and moving story, one that Davies has taken the time and the imagination to work out with cogent emotional accuracy. He has invested more than usual–more than the question of love even–in what remains unspoken.

But overall, the watchword for this cautious second story collection is restraint. Strong emotion is occasionally glimpsed in the twelve compact pieces, but it is immediately submerged, and almost never dramatized. Quiet tension–tension that barely recognizes itself–suffuses Davies’s characters, who generally seem to have a low level of self-awareness. If that tension erupts, it is in a dropped word or a muffled epiphany that signals dénouement; Davies never goes on to take us near the real heart of anguish or blight of the soul. One typical story ends with a kind of provisional finality: "It’s almost late enough to call." That "almost" says a lot about Davies’s oblique method and angled style; there is little certainty after the final period. Another concludes, "Then the whistle blew and he began to cry." After reading a few of these stories, you know instinctively, without seeing the blankness on the rest of the page, that that is where Davies would stop. He is above all a decorous writer, and when the tears begin his characters are quickly shielded, the curtain is peremptorily drawn.

When combined with his plain, spare, uninflected prose–Davies almost never employs figurative language–this restraint is reminiscent of late 1970s and ’80s minimalism. Davies shares much with the writers who defined that mode and sensibility–Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Donald Barthelme. The irony of such writing–and it is nothing if not ironic–is that what seems so controlled and affectless is actually confessional. The characters who appear to say so little of direct emotional power or import are, in the politely suggested depths of their being, experiencing either a crisis of self-worth, a puzzled breakdown of understanding, or, most often, a sense of loss–even if that loss is inchoately existential or yet to be realized. Loss is the future of the bewildered husband in "The Hull Case" and of the surviving brother in "On The Terraces," both of whom have lost some of their footing in the world.

Whatever the prevailing emotions, the minimalist metaphor for the can be difficult to parse because they are hidden in the objects, activities, and gestures of the everyday. (At its worst, the style’s metaphors are free-floating or the vehicles for them are arbitrary.) In Davies’s new stories, toys can contain them, or a football match, or a girl’s teeth. But when we, the readers, are unable to supply the connection, it’s hard to see why these commonplaces really matter.