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    Torn and fearful lives


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000

    Initially, reading William Tester's collection of short stories, HEAD, was like seeing a gallery of surrealist art for the first time. Like a Salvador Dali painting, the stories are dissonant, beyond the usual, hard to figure. I found myself looking for something familiar. But, as with Dali, any melting watch I turned up turned out to be only a surreal vision of memory.

    Most of the 10 stories need to be read twice. Some get better on the second reading, such as IMMACULATE whose character smokes cigarettes in the dark of his apartment kitchen while watching the girl across the way get dressed to go out.

    Tester's writing is sharp, though the language at times is lyrical. One of the more poignant stories is HERE THE DARK ENDED, in which a character recalls his younger days in 1979 New York, trying to live without a job and scared of love.

    "What do I remember? Touching her. I took a booth, catching my thin face in the window as Britta and her blonde friend sat checking us out. They sat chainsmoking. If I could just touch her, I thought, I'd be saved."

    Tester describes himself as a native of Charleston and North Florida. The first story in the collection is a Florida story.

    WET is about two brothers so bullied by their stepfather that they string barbed wire in a swampy area during a thunderstorm rather than risk his wrath. When the lightning starts to dance near them, they fear it more, and it frees them.

    In the beginning of the story, Tester writes a perfect description of Florida heat. His character is hung over, up too early and heading out to do hard work for a man who bullies him and his brother.

    "I leave the barn, blink at the soggy green land on our farm with the palm trees' breezing fronds. Junk is everywhere. What doesn't still need to sleep? Already, the sun seems to vaporize last night's rain into a visible greenhouse heat, and everything glistens, or wavers, and steams a little."

    In the foreword to the book, Amy Hempel writes that it is fear that strings all of the characters together in the very different stories in HEAD. I found that all the characters seemed to have their spirits torn in one way or another.

    Two stories at the end of the collection are worth the price of the book. One is called FLORIDITA. In it a man recalls the time in his childhood when he, his sister and mother sat at the kitchen table and listened to the reel-to-reel as it played tapes from their father/husband stationed in Vietnam. Here is some of Tester's most vivid writing.

    "The reel-to-reel spun, and there were helicopters coming in low, slow as hornets, their bellies swelled with soldiers, and the soldier dead.

    "My dad's voice. All hollow, and large in a closed up way. Closed-up like it was spoken through those small speakers on the car windows at the drive-in. The louder you would turn it, the worse it came out. Me and Mama and Jane were all on top of it, listening to him."

    US is the last story in HEAD, a two-paragraph love story that nearly is perfect.

    - Sharon Bond is a Times staff writer.


    By William Tester

    Sarabande Books, $19.95

    Festival Author

    William Tester will be among the speakers at the Times Festival of Reading Nov. 11-12 on the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

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