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"Dear Life," by Alice Munro. Knopf. 319 pages. $26.95
Alice Munro is not a Southerner -- she's not even an American -- yet her short stories deal with such universal human concerns, such as love, loneliness, anxiety, death, that she seems to be speaking to us all. Most of them are set in her native Canada, yet they might have been taking place in any small town, anywhere.
This is not to say that we're in "Our Town" territory. Her characters do bad things, selfish, thoughtless, careless things, and sometimes they pay for it and sometimes they don't. No story is typical because they are all quite different. The girl in "Amundsen" is passive, willing to marry a man she barely knows, and equally willing to go away quietly when he changes his mind. But she goes on loving him anyway. "Nothing changes really about love," she says at the end.
The women in "To Reach Japan" and "Haven" are considerably more aggressive, one entering a longtime affair with a married man and even paying blackmail to a woman who has seen them together. In another, a young mother makes love to a stranger on a train, leaving her daughter asleep and returns to find the child missing. One character becomes obsessed with a newspaper columnist she has met at a drunken party. She is married, with a child, but while he never made a pass at her, she cannot forget him.
Many of her characters live aimless lives, drifting from one relationship to another without any real plan. In "Train," a young war veteran named Jackson jumps off a train a few miles short of his destination. He doesn't explain why. He runs across a middle-aged woman who is struggling to run her farm by herself. He offers to do some repairs on her house and pretty soon he is living there. When she dies, he drifts away again. His story is messy, but so is life.
She says the last four stories are "autobiographical in feeling," and to some extent they are. Munro grew up in a small town in Canada, as does the girl who tells these stories; her father raised foxes and minks, and her mother was a socially ambitious woman who developed Parkinson's Disease. She didn't get along with her mother, and in the title story, "Dear Life," she does not even go to her mother's funeral. "We say we will never forgive ourselves," she tells us at the end, "but we do -- we do it all the time."
Munro has written 12 collections of stories, which have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, McCall's, Harper's and The Atlantic, and shows little sign of easing up.
She says of those final stories, "they are the first and last -- and the closes -- things that I have to say about my own life."
She talks about this being her last book, but that's hard to believe. "The only thing that has ever filled my life," she says, "is writing. I just keep doing it. I don't even stop for one day."