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Humiliation, Gloom And Other Paradoxical Pleasures

Mary Gaitskill's previous books include <em>Two Girls, Fat and Thin</em> and <em>Bad Behavior</em>.
Mary Gaitskill's previous books include Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Bad Behavior.

With Don't Cry, her third short-story collection, Mary Gaitskill confirms her status as the sharpest portraitist of our darker nature. Covering much the same ground she surveyed in "Secretary" (the classic story — made into a 2002 movie — that worked a kink into the concept of wage slavery) and in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (the sharp, eerie 1991 novel about the power games kids play), the author explores doomed and dooming romances and creatively destructive impulses.

Five of these 10 stories, though well-constructed, simply deliver old news about Gaitskill's favorite themes; the other half find the author further developing her cold eye for inner turbulence. The first and best is "College Town, 1980," featuring as its protagonist dolorous Dolores, a 29-year-old dropout and neurotic sloth. She imagines herself a failure even at being miserable. "Everybody wanted to be depressed," Gaitskill writes. "But your depression was supposed to be funny, too, and that was what had proved too much for Dolores."

The story showcases Gaitskill's fresh interest in character studies, which is to say nothing much happens. Dolores directs "impotent detestation" at a belligerent waitress at the diner where she wastes her mornings. She mooches off her snide brother. Ultimately, reckoning with her terrible passivity, she achieves a highly ambiguous kind of personal growth: "She couldn't feel anything inside herself now but flat metallic strength."

"College Town, 1980" surges with the same verbal energy that animates the author's best work. Tough and rhythmically quick, the lines owe a debt to Ernest Hemingway's terseness, but the discomfort they evoke is Gaitskill's own. In "Folk Song," which reads like a writing exercise raised to the level of a cracked myth, the narrator flips through the newspaper, seizes on separate articles about a murderer, a porn star and a pair of stolen zoo animals, and merges the items into a stunning consideration of the grotesque. In "The Little Boy," an aging housewife floats through an airport during a layover, reflecting on the topics of abusive childhood and disappointing parenthood in skillful stream-of-consciousness passages.

These are the collection's peaks, but even its least effective stories deliver moments of enlightening gloom. Don't Cry succeeds, as a whole, by expertly considering emotional degradation in all its sorrow, shame and paradoxical pleasure.

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Troy Patterson