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THE STOLEN RABBIT, AND OTHER LOOPY BUT LOVELY STORIES

PILGRIMS

By Elizabeth Gilbert
Houghton-Mifflin
210 pages, $22

Where did Elizabeth Gilbert, mere slip of a girl, get the rare-cut baloney to write the preposterous penultimate story in "Pilgrims," "The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick," a wonderfully brilliant and engrossing story?

Do not mess with crazed old men. Do not steal their bunny.

Richard Hoffman, Hungarian immigrant, owner of a Pittsburgh supper club that features magicians, has a big white rabbit named Bonnie. Bonnie sleeps on the porch like a dog, head between paws. One day Hoffman comes home and Bonnie isn't there or anywhere else. Bonnie is missing. Quickly convinced that a young lawyer couple who have moved next door are holding Bonnie captive somewhere in their house, Hoffman undertakes a siege, then an assault. Finally the police cart him off.

The Wilsons in fact have the bunny.

Hoffman's daughter, Esther, finally seeing that her crackpot father was right, deftly rescues the bunny and restores Bonnie to Hoffman in his jail cell.

A wacky tale, and inside it another story: fathers being critical of their daughters, judgmental and disparaging; and daughters patiently loving and finally winning their father's respect. Happy the Hoffman whose Esther produces his bunny and gives it to him at his last extremity -- the silken rabbit, right through the bars of his prison door.

You think of Frederick Barthelme as you read Elizabeth Gilbert's "Pilgrims," of Richard Ford, of Raymond Carver. Tough terse prose and laconic narration.

School of Hemingway, actually. These writers do well by it. So does Gilbert. She rides out with these guys, but she's immediately on her own range.

"Pilgrims" are John Wayne people.

Gilbert's last story is a touching hymn to a cowboy goddess, Rose. It is a hymn to a woman's sexual beauty and power -- her centralizing dynamism -- and it has a lovely concluding trope I'll keep fresh for you.

Read "Pilgrims." You'll see what I mean.

"The Finest Wife" begins: "When Rose was 16 years old and five months pregnant, she won a beauty pageant in South Texas, based on her fine walk up a runway in a sweet navy-blue bathing suit."

This Rose is like Laura Dern's Rose in the movie "Rambling Rose." She's a sweet semi-innocent killer. She walks by and men fall down. She, for her part, likes men. She has a taste for certain types but is generous and will countenance other kinds of guys. She marries once, a big guy, "muscled and hairy."

I liked this story, and it was nice to know a woman had written it. I liked the way it posited the men in Rose's life. I like the way it described that community, that brotherhood, of Rose's lovers.

Everyone knows a Rose or some version of her. There's a fabulous Rose in Kenmore. Everyone knows who she is.

Truly, Gilbert rides her own range. In these westerns there's a horse girl, Martha Knox; and there's Ellen, Diane, Julie, that South Texan Rose, all suckers for a guy "wearing a John Deere hat," a guy whose name is Dean.

Her fiction is serious, too. It poses questions. "Elk Talk" is dear to my heart. Humans have indeed begun a conversation with animals -- primates mostly, signifying/signaling chimpanzees and gorillas -- a conversation that differs from the language of command. What, one wonders, are the protocols, the niceties? Horse whisperers are in vogue and they have suggestions.

"Elk Talk," which takes up the issue of cross-species linguistic violation, is a neat example of the new Montana/Wyoming/Idaho western. Gilbert's flinty Jean is a modern displeased Dan'l Boone unhappily greeting the new neighbors in her part of the woods. The new guy, still shabbily citified, has a catalog-purchased elk mouthpiece, a device for calling elk, which he insists on demonstrating for Jean.

He calls out to elk, and elk come. Jean hates him.

Think about it. Everything you'd say to an elk, as a human, would be a lie.