The short stories in Deborah Eisenberg’s Under the 82nd Airborne follow the same pattern as those in her first collection, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986). Again her protagonists find the world around them bewildering, the people incomprehensible, and the direction of their own lives uncertain. Again, the revelations that finally come to these characters are merely tentative. While at the end of the story a protagonist may have gained some self-understanding or understanding of surroundings, there is no assurance that this new perception will change the protagonist’s life.
There is an important difference between Transactions in a Foreign Currency and Under the 82nd Airborne. All the stories in the earlier collection were told in the first person; in Under the 82nd Airborne, Eisenberg uses that point of view for only one of them, “Holy Week,” which is written in the form of a journal. The fact that the other six stories are all written in the third person enables the author to maintain a greater detachment from her characters. It may be this detachment that has caused some critics to accuse Eisenberg of coldness. Even if the charge is true, whatever this new detachment may have cost in compassion, it has enabled Eisenberg to exercise her wit and her talent for satire.
Although Eisenberg obviously prefers the uncertainties of her protagonists to the certainties of the smug and hypocritical characters around them, she is too honest not to point out the weaknesses even of these sympathetic characters. For example, in the title story, the middle-aged actress Caitlin can only be called obtuse. On an impulse, she has invited herself on a trip to Honduras with her grown daughter, Holly, and Holly’s “boyfriend” Brandon, a pilot and “businessman.” Obviously, Caitlin has not been keeping up with the news; she has no idea that Honduras is a unstable country and a hotbed of covert activity, where American paratroopers will soon be dropped for propaganda purposes.
Eisenberg stresses Caitlin’s seeming inability to put two and two together. For example, although she notices that most of the airplane passengers seem to be either boys with cropped hair or men with attaché cases, Caitlin continues to think of her destination in terms of beaches, rum, and romance. There is no harm in Caitlin; indeed, her need for her daughter’s love is pitiable. Caitlin, however, never connects the tolerant indifference Holly feels for her with her own action in abandoning her when she was only three and a half years old. Similarly, Caitlin refuses to face reality about the situation in Honduras. When someone suggests that there may be danger, she recalls noticing a lot of men with machine guns, but she does not connect that fact with her own situation. The result is a triumph of comic irony. Using the technique of limited omniscience, Eisenberg relates Caitlin’s thoughts, which do not lead anywhere, while at the same time including her thoughtless observations, which enable the reader to draw the conclusions to which Caitlin cannot or will not proceed.
There is a similar kind of indirection in the only story in this collection not told in the third person. “Holy Week” is in the form of a journal kept by Dennis, a travel writer who, like Caitlin, has gone to Central America in search of an illusory good life, not to discover the grim political and social realities. In his journal, Dennis records his observations of the landscape and his evaluations of restaurants, along with elaborate justifications for his consistent refusal to face anything unpleasant in life. To Dennis, his current girlfriend, young, idealistic Sarah, is just another of those intelligent but irrational women who have made his life difficult by insisting that it be less superficial. Although through his own journal entries Dennis reveals himself as vividly as the flawed characters of Robert Browning, “Holy Week” is the weakest story in this collection. The problem is an inconsistency of style, evidently the result of the author’s wish to reflect her own viewpoint through Sarah. When Dennis quotes Sarah, he switches from the fragmentary jottings one expects in a journal to fully reported conversations; at other times, he writes passages in an essay style, for example, on the miserable condition of the poor. These again sound more like Sarah or Eisenberg than the self- deceiving protagonist.
A more skillful way of reflecting two different viewpoints can be seen in “The Station,” in which Eisenberg alternates between the minds of two characters. One of them is Dee, a gauche, unattractive American teenager who, after quarrelling with her mother, has gone to England to spend several weeks with her half-brother,...