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Leah, New Hampshire: Stories by Thomas Williams (A Graywolf Discovery)

Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams - Thomas   Williams, John Irving There are many things to commend this collection of stories: the careful but poetic language, the richness of character, the author’s obvious love for his central New Hampshire setting. But what is most striking in these stories is their humaneness: while Williams’ characters are certainly as flawed as anyone else’s, as given to silliness or meanness as the average human being, Williams treats them all with love and compassion. They are never made to seem worse than they are, and we are let into their thoughts just enough for us to see ourselves in their petty preoccupations. It is with a flash of self-recognition that we encounter the characters in these stories, and having seen ourselves in them we love them in spite of their weaknesses.Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the story “The Skier’s Progress”. Williams leaps from character to character, letting us into the thoughts of a middle-aged ski instructor who fears that he’s seen his best days already, a middle-aged divorcee who is beginning to imagine that her best days are still ahead of her, a teenaged boy struggling with the early torments of the heart, a middle-aged man consumed by fears and regrets, and an old man who is trying to face death and pain with dignity, or at least humor. Had Williams stayed in one mind through the story, the other characters would surely have seemed frivolous and self-absorbed; had he chosen a neutral observer’s voice, the story might have been a delightful farce or satire; but by passing the baton and letting each character carry a piece of the story, Williams humanizes each character, and makes us realize that all of them are worthy of our care. His stories are short on plot — they are often more like character studies than stories, with only the barest of action to let us see how their characters react — but they are rich in humanity and compassion.There is an elegiac quality to these stories; they are, for the most part, stories of middle age, of looking back with a mix of nostalgia and regret and of looking ahead with apprehension. The characters encounter mortality in many guises — through the death of a parent, the death of a friend, fear of the death of a spouse, and intimations of their own eventual end — and are, for the most part, up to the task in quiet and dignified fashion. The setting is New Hampshire, so there’s a good deal of hunting and fishing to be found, but these are outdoor stories more like Mark Slouka’s Lost Lake than like Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.This book is, alas, out of print. And Mr. Williams passed away in 1990, after a distinguished career as a novelist and teacher (John Irving, who wrote the introduction to the Graywolf Press edition, was one of his students). But if you should run across this unimposing green cover in your local library or used bookshop, liberate it from the shelf — you’ll be better for it.