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The unquenchable search for sanctuary

Little Edens

By Barbara Klein Moss

Norton, 332 pp., $23.95

Two years after 9/11, the idea of Eden seems both fantastical and infinitely remote. Which of us can think of paradise, utopia, or innocence in a time bathed in sorrow, anger, and confusion? But the heart has its reasons, and in spite of the daily barrage of rampant materialism (here come the Christmas catalogs!), foulmouthed rap music, so-called TV reality shows, and images of giant trees going up in smoke in the American West, a significant portion of the reading public remains mired, not surprisingly, in longing -- for the idyllic and the edenic. As Barbara Klein Moss correctly notes, those little Edens are ''not only the physical spaces that people seek, but the inner lives they nurture and protect, and the creations that issue from those lives."

The visceral and unquenchable desire for a little bit of paradise never wanes. Choose your exemplar; we are all on intimate terms with a serpent.

Moss, who describes herself as a late bloomer who entered the Warren Wilson writing program at 52, understands the complexities of desire, the kind responsible for our expulsion from paradise and our longing to re-create it. Each of the eight stories in this debut collection, ''Little Edens," describes the tension between our inner and outer worlds, between the imagined Eden and the re-created substitute. In ''Rug Weaver" (selected for ''Best American Short Stories 2001"), for example, an Iranian rug dealer transforms his prison cell by mentally weaving an elaborate rug. In doing so he creates order and beauty, two components of Eden before the fall. He ''had been allowed space to create a paradise, to draw it out of its hiddenness and into the world." Moss, who lived in San Diego in 1993 (''which seemed like another planet") after post-college days in Boston and, with her husband, at a small boarding school in New Hampshire, uses that material in her first California story, ''Little Edens." They lived in a subdivision called Barcelona, and she ''was fascinated by the rootlessness of the place, so different from what I'd known in New England: the effacement of the past, the transient population. Everyone . . . seemed to have been born somewhere else, and to tell a different tale about why they had come to this quasi-paradise." The main character in ''The Palm Tree of Dilys Cathcart," a gentile piano teacher who has a musical affair with Krakauer, a Jewish butcher with a sick wife, was actually ''a refined-looking Englishwoman in a flowered dress and sneakers" observed ''deep in conversation with a Hispanic woman." ''Unforgettable" is too weak an adjective to describe this story, about how Cathcart and Krakauer ''had teetered on the brink of ecstasy. And they had never touched. Not once."

In ''The Consolations of Art," Kriensky, a recent widower, advertises for a home-care worker but, as his daughter Arlene says, unconsciously alluding both to the end of Eden and to the Holocaust, you ''let trouble in the door and it fills the house like poison gas." The other stories are of the same quality. In ''Interpreters," Thomas, an obsessed furniture maker, tries to remodel his extraneous, no-name wife, who learns from him that ''the world had fallen not just once, as she'd been taught in Sunday school, but piece by piece, again and again." The truth embedded here is almost flagrant, almost makes you gasp, and then you remember that this is a piece of wisdom you wish you did not have.

''Camping In," one of those stories whose every sentence prepares you for disaster, turns out instead to be the plaintive tale of Mercedes (''Accent on the first syllable. As in 'Lord, have mercedes on me' "), another seriously unloved and unnoticed child running rampant through contemporary American literature and back to Hawthorne's ''Rappaccini's Daughter." This teenager, an almost silent waif whose dust cloth becomes a weapon, is hired to clean and baby-sit; instead she refashions someone else's house and possessions to make the nest she needs. In ''The Palm Tree of Dilys Cathcart," the Jewish mysticism called kabala, and its principles of duality and wholeness, emerge.

Every reviewer of short stories mentions the long history of how difficult they are to sell if, in fact, the writer can find a publisher in the first place. We've been told ad nauseam that readers prefer the novel, the longer form. But language, insight, and talent are the real issues. And in the case of Moss, I'd read her proverbial laundry list if she cares to send it. That, a good cup of coffee, and some peace and quiet would be my own little Eden.

Mickey Pearlman is the author of ''What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers" and a mentor in the University of Minnesota online program at mentoring.cce.umn.edu.

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