In a love sonnet there are quatrains and comparisons (one’s love is like a rose). In a revenge tragedy there is bloodshed and madness. In a Jayne Anne Phillips story there are wounded people (some of them drug users, others simply stunned by life) who make poetry out of their pain.
Phillips is a young writer whose first book, BLACK TICKETS, a collection of stories, was one of the most highly praised debuts of the decade. Her first novel, MACHINE DREAMS, was equally well received. FAST LANES does not have the weight of its predecessors. It is a very small book; three of the seven stories are sketches, only several pages long. It does not extend her range; two of the stories (“Blue Moon” and “Bess”) were written for MACHINE DREAMS but did not find a place in the novel’s final form, and the collection as a whole is too predictable. What makes the book worth reading, despite its flaws, is Phillips’ prodigal way with words.
The promise of seeing that gift exercised will persuade at least a few readers to keep going even after the extraordinarily obnoxious opening story, “How Mickey Made It,” the monologue of a young rock musician beneath whose violent and profane speech (some of it capitalized for emphasis) we are apparently intended to discern a sensitive spirit. “Rayme” sketches a simple-minded girl with a mixture of irritating portentousness (there is a reference to “the doomed McCarthy campaign”) and vivid observation (the title character stays in one’s mind). “Fast Lanes,” the strongest piece in the collection, is a road story in the vein of BLACK TICKETS. “Bluegill” is an intense lyrical sketch; “Something That Happened” is uncharacteristic, a slice of life that could have come from a slick women’s magazine.
This is a writer’s book, with plenty of fine sentences that can be detached from their context for study or admiration. Its vision of a lost generation is entirely conventional, adding nothing to the account of post-Vietnam America offered in countless stories, novels, and films.