BOOK REVIEW / Janet and John in Oedipal soup: 'City of Boys' - Beth Nugent: Cape, 14.99

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'I'M 36,' announces a woman in one of Beth Nugent's stories called 'Locusts'. 'Who ever thought everything would be so awful?' This is a rare outburst in a collection that favours costive, emotionally inarticulate characters, but the woman's tone of bewildered misery is entirely representative. There's not a single happy person in Beth Nugent's short stories. And from story to story, the tenor and type of their misery stays pretty much the same. The author (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) explores the gamut of emotions from A to B.

The Ur-Nugent tale is set in a stifling, Fifties America and concerns a nuclear family in a more or less advanced state of disintegration. There is a beautiful but remote mother, one of those bourbon- and perfume-scented women often found in the stories of John O'Hara and John Cheever, who is on the verge of middle age and nervous breakdown. There is a troubled, vulnerable son, engaged in some sort of black sheepery (homosexuality, drugs) and on his way to self-destruction. There is a shadowy or altogether absent father. And there is an adolescent girl - the narrator - who quietly observes the Oedipal soup while yearning for sexual adventure and escape.

The stories endlessly reshuffle this pack. In 'At the End of My Life' and 'Abbatoir', the mother and father have all but disappeared into the fog of their private unhappiness, leaving the focus on the brother and sister. In 'Another Country' and 'Cocktail Hour', the anguish of the mother- daughter bond assumes centre stage. In every instance, the familial tie is both cloying and insufficient. Nobody can give anybody else what they really need. 'Mother, I want to call out, Mother, I am dying,' the girl narrator says at the end of 'Another Country', 'but she is falling once again into the arms of a man she loves.'

With the exception of occasional lyrical outbursts like this, and a few lush, slightly over-wrought metaphors, Nugent sticks to the bleached, laconic style that constitutes the comme il faut of contemporary American short fiction. Sentences are brief and elliptical and arranged with the rhythm, but not the sense of syllogisms. Dialogue is choppy and dull, in a tense sort of way, to indicate the alienation of the characters; irrelevant details are piled up, emanating poignance and general meaningfulness: 'When I pick up my glass, it leaves a wet ring on the coaster.'

It's not clear how these mannerisms ever got to be so vogueish, although it seems probable that the work of Raymond Carver had something to do with it. In any case, they are hard going. The intense repetitiveness of theme and mise-en-scene in Nugent's stories - indicating the therapeutic unburdening of some hefty, autobiographical freight - is tiresome. But what finally defeats the reader is the Janet and John locutions and the screaming absence of subordinate clauses.