Connell: writing on the edge

What do we make of Evan S. Connell? In the course of a half-century career, he has written fiction, essays, biography and two book-length poems.

His paired novels, "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge," remain among the most insightful portraits of 20th century middle-American suburban life ever written; his biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, "Son of the Morning Star," reimagines the story of the Old West as a complicated tragedy.

If he's known for anything, it's for these last three books (or the movies made from them), but perhaps it's more accurate to say he's hardly known at all. A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Connell moved, in 1989, to New Mexico, where he writes at age 83. Still, despite the accolades of his contemporaries -- Peter Matthiessen has called him "among the country's foremost writers" -- and his longevity, Connell remains on the periphery of our literary consciousness, marginalized by his eclecticism.

In a culture that likes things easily categorizable, anyone who doesn't stay within the margins runs the risk of being left out. Yet I wonder whether the difficulty has to do with Connell's work itself. He can be a tricky writer -- all knees and elbows, his prose asymmetrical, his stories fragmentary, dense. Is he a great-if-underappreciated author? Or a problematic talent who has produced a few great books?

Connell's 19th book, "Lost in Uttar Pradesh: New and Selected Stories," is not likely to resolve these questions. But this diverse collection, featuring 22 stories -- six new and 16 published between 1954 and 1994 -- is a Connell primer, highlighting recurring characters and ongoing themes.

In it, Connell weaves clusters of related stories, the flow of narratives mirroring the way time moves through us. We first meet J.D. -- a peripatetic wanderer -- in "The Walls of Avila," a 1955 story about the resentment his old friends feel toward his unorthodox way of life, then re-encounter him in "The Palace of the Moorish Kings," written nearly 20 years later.

This tension between the rebel and straight society is a key motif in much of Connell's work. "There are times," Muhlbach says, "a man must liberate his soul, otherwise he's in for trouble." Coming at the center of the book, that line feels like an axis around which the rest of Connell's writing revolves.

To frame a collection as a series of overlapping narrative cycles is fascinating; when it works, it adds depth and nuance. The three pieces about Proctor Bemis, "lately retired CEO of Bemis Securities," resonate with the hypocrisies of middle-class suburbia, the dissatisfactions of the country club, the viciousness of politics, the social divide.

In "Election Eve," one of the new stories, Bemis and his wife attend a costume party the night before the 2000 election; everyone is to come as a past president. It's a delightfully absurd setup -- until a man dressed as Abe Lincoln starts haranguing Bemis to "chase those Democrat scalawags out of town." Bemis launches into his own harangue: "Ladies and gentlemen, while destitute citizens rummage through garbage cans and prowl the streets, what does our government do? It sheathes the Pentagon in gold. I submit to you that we could at this moment vaporize whatever creeps, crawls, flies, walks, hops, slithers, or jumps. ... Meanwhile, Republicans wring their hands, claiming we are defenseless, ill-prepared, at the mercy of two-bit tyrants."

Here Connell the editorializer uses his stories to comment on the broader world. A lot of authors sidestep this, with good reason. For Connell, it's part of the aesthetic: "Montesquieu said one must be truthful in all things, even when they concern one's own country. I do believe that," he noted in a 2001 Bookforum interview. And Bemis' outburst at the party works not only in conjunction with the earlier story "Proctor Bemis" but also with the later one, "Mrs. Proctor Bemis," in which the character's deeply conservative wife offers a counterpoint.

"Lost in Uttar Pradesh" is the third volume of collected or selected stories Connell has published in the last 28 years. And there's substantial overlap between it and its precursors, "St. Augustine's Pigeon" (1980) and "The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell" (1995). Every one of the older stories here has appeared in one or the other of those books. To be fair, both collections are out of print, but if the purpose of the book is to showcase the half-dozen newer pieces, that may not be enough.

Whatever the reason, "Lost in Uttar Pradesh" offers an unsettled glimpse of its author. Brilliant in places, frustrating in others, enigmatic in both content and conception, it's a vivid metaphor for Connell's career.