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Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z Z Packer

It's a funeral, not a lesbian rally

She sounds like a cross between a grizzled Seventies rock trio and an Australian media mogul, she is a black writer (born in Chicago, raised in Atlanta) who sidesteps African-Americancentricity, and she has, on the strength of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, won a $250,000 advance for her first novel. The eight short stories in this, Z Z Packer's debut volume, are about "Negroes", often from the Deep South, and there is many a racial and sexual confrontation. Yet each story has a universal, human dimension that subtly transcends the immediate subject.

"The Ant of the Self", ostensibly about the million-man march in Washington, focuses on a father and son. Neither wants to be at the rally. The father is there because he thinks it a likely market for the tropical birds he's trying to flog, the son is bullied into helping. In another story, a troop of Brownies on a summer camp contrive to feel offended by a neighbouring white group, until they discover that their "enemies" are borderline retarded. Only in the final story, "Doris is Coming", set in the early 1960s, does Packer broach the issue of civil rights. Even here, Doris's diffident, solitary stand in a whites-only diner represents a poignant moment of her personal development rather than any commitment to the movement.

Packer's perspective is that of the outsider, one whose personal experience flies in the face of local political or religious orthodoxies. In the title story, Dina, a solitary and abrasive Yale undergraduate, is coaxed into exploring her homosexuality by Heidi, an insecure white girl. As Heidi prepares to go home following her mother's death, a lesbian activist says reassuringly: "Vancouver's got a great gay community." "Oh, God," Dina retorts in disgust. "She's going to a funeral, not a Save the Dykes rally." In "Speaking in Tongues", a teenage girl spends compulsory prayers "thinking of a way to get to Atlanta". Only when she runs away and becomes vulnerable to the dangers of the real world does Tia take recourse in genuine prayer. (In the city she learns how people exploit their grievances. Despite her own destitution, she gives her comb to a vagrant who "argued that he was professionally homeless".)

God is ubiquitous: in the powerful Pentecostal churches of the Deep South, where His name is taken in vain by self-serving preachers; in the heart of a nurse who goads herself "to Persevere, put on the Strong Armor of God"; and in the author's throwaway similes. "The lights at downtown winked at her, the crescent moon like a castaway cuticle, discarded by God."

In "Every Tongue Shall Confess", Clareese Mitchell faithfully accepts the discrimination that frustrates her ambition to be a deacon - "Deacons, like pastors, were men". Indeed, even after suffering Deacon McCreedy's sexual abuse, Clareese's real fear is that the white dress she is obliged to wear in church will betray the onset of her period. Clareese is less concerned by her victimisation at the hands of man than by the burden placed on women by God.

The introspective heroes of this collection of still-life episodes are acute psychological studies drawn in lucid, elegant prose. As J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons, so Dina measures out her fantasies in coffee cups. Ultimately the "Elsewhere" of the title means "among the people of the world", where people are unpredictable individuals who defy the herd's tribal mores. Packer's existential vision is all the more remarkable in the context of America's somewhat parochial cultural traditions, not least the prevailing norms of political correctness.