Do people behave any better than animals? Do they often behave worse? That question underlies Jill McCorkle's latest book, Creatures of Habit, a collection of stories set in the fictional town of Fulton, North Carolina, that explores the vagaries of childhood, love and marriage.

The best stories in this book deal with betrayal. In Chickens, McCorkle demonstrates her profound ability to report on the intricacies of human psychology. The story tells of a young college graduate, Kim, who always expected to marry Randy, her childhood sweetheart. Toward the end of her college career, however, she learns that Randy has been dating and sleeping with other girls. When he attempts to patch things up, her pride rebels. Instead of taking him back, she starts dating a divorced man 14 years her senior. Has Kim betrayed her birthright or has she bailed out of a bad situation? McCorkle shows her brilliance as a writer by not telling the reader exactly where to stand on this question.

Snakes is another story that deals with the compromises one makes with the romantic ideals of youth. A middle-aged married couple has weathered a dark patch in their relationship. They are enjoying a quiet evening together when the wife learns that her husband had a brief affair during their estrangement. Now she has to decide whether to undo the repairs her marriage has undergone by making an issue of his lapse.

Another powerful story is Turtles, in which McCorkle draws back the curtain on old age. The central character, Carly, is ending an unloved life in a nursing home that fails to live up to the promises of its brochure. Her son never visits, and she has an unrequited crush on a distinguished old man in another wing. Even the nursing home dog leaves her for another resident who offers better snacks.

McCorkle is a justly beloved author, in part because of her ability to deal a straight hand without bitterness. Though she does not hold back when it comes to capturing the cruelty in life, she doesn't sell short its moments of tenderness, either.

Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

 

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