Tess Gallagher,
At the Owl Woman Saloon
(Scribner, 1997)

To be completely honest, I'm not a big fan of mystery endings. I know, I know -- it's a common literary device, and a well-accepted one, at that. It doesn't stop me from hating "The Lady and the Tiger," cringing at the movie Seven, or despising television season cliffhangers.

So if I have one complaint about Tess Gallagher's book At the Owl Woman Saloon, it's this: the short-story, unrevealed consequences, left-hanging-at-times format makes it hard for me to enjoy her book completely. It sits at the back of my mind, wanting to find the author to ask, "What happened, anyway?"

Conversely, this criticism is a compliment. All too often in the short story format, the characters take a back seat to the concept. Not so with Gallagher. Her work in this book is exceptional in characterization, not leaving the people as an afterthought to their actions.

This said, At the Owl Woman Saloon is a great collection of tales, and not just as a study in character. Each story stands alone, but follows along the common thread of the dichotomy of meaning in salon/saloon. In several of the stories, the connection isn't as readily apparent, but in all, the thread is present. The first, self-titled story introduces this theme: A women's hair salon is invaded by men; the story follows one woman's reaction.

"Two men in the Owl Woman Salon! I attribute it to Jenny's recent ill-considered, but financially prudent, decision to take 'walk-ins.' Are these guys illiterate or what? 'Owl Woman Salon', the sign says. Did they think it said 'Owl Woman SALOON'?"

Another example of Gallagher's theme is in the story "Coming and Going," about a woman recently widowed, fighting a legal battle with a foreign complainant. Her salon connection is less literal -- the implied funeral salon -- and the way the author ties it in is nothing short of brilliant. She reflects withing this work a deep understanding of characters, and her wordplay is unexpected and fresh.

By far, my favorite stories in the book were some where the threads of theme weren't as obvious. It's a challenge in those stories to find it. (I said I didn't like obscured endings, not hidden themes, which are much like a puzzle to decode.) "I Got A Guy Once," a short tale of revenge and its aftermath, and "She Who is Untouched by Fire," a micro-short story of a woman's displacement of self seem at first to be unrelated. It's only on the rereading of the first story that it begins to tie in:

"I am thinking: saloon or salon -- you walk in one way and come out another."

Overall, this collection is well worth the $12 (U.S.) cover price. Tess Gallagher has provided for us a group of stories that are easy to read and enjoyable for the most part, that has left me seeing things differently -- just as her saloon theme would suggest.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

Buy At the Owl Woman Saloon from Amazon.com.