Along with its many pleasures, Mary Gaitskill's fiction imparts two strong impressions. First, Gaitskill is a hardworking writer; virtually every sentence in her stories affords evidence of her effort -- curious diction, a twist in the syntax, an oblique simile.
Second, it's all about sex. This has been true from the beginning, when her first collection, "Bad Behavior," won as much attention for its seamy steaminess as for the quality of writing. Over the years, Gaitskill's prose and fiction have matured and acquired the sort of substance that outlasts superficial charms -- and sometimes even gives that surface a deeper and more interesting character. This, crudely put, was in fact the gist of Gaitskill's 2006 novel, "Veronica," a finalist for the National Book Award.
Still, the stories in Gaitskill's new collection, "Don't Cry," retain some of that sense of reflecting a life, and a world, in which success is calculated according to sexual connections made (or unmade) -- an odd but deeply felt and carefully crafted update of E.M. Forster's injunction: "Only connect." Even in stories that carry her into new territory -- like the intensely moving title story, which follows a recently widowed woman into Africa as she tries to help her friend adopt a baby -- the dead husband and lost relationship are depicted in largely sexual terms. What is interesting, though, is how Gaitskill turns this situation, and this technique, upon itself, as the husband's advancing Alzheimer's disease forces the narrator to confront questions of soul and self and physicality.
Some of these stories revisit characters and situations from Gaitskill's earlier collections, particularly "Because They Wanted To," and vaguely follow the trajectory of the author's life -- girlhood and school in Michigan, writing success in a troubling vein, retreat to San Francisco, teaching in Texas and New York. Those that go further afield are interesting experiments like "The Mirror Ball," in which souls, stolen and lost in a one-night stand, are given a literal weight and presence, and "Folk Song," which plays paired but seemingly unrelated newspaper articles against one another. And then there is "The Little Boy," the beautiful story of an older woman recapturing her life, reclaiming its sweetness, through an encounter with a child in an airport.
Finally "Don't Cry," which concludes the collection, marks at once an ending and an arrival. Juxtaposing questions of birth and death, of want and plenty, of kindness and cruelty, the story also echoes the steps of Gaitskill's career, from the glib darkness that only a very young writer could carry off with aplomb, to the poignant understanding, rendered with clear-eyed precision, that only the wise writer can bring to fiction, and to life.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.