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From the cover of The Sweetheart is In genesis on a conjugal bed back in Houston, she presumes to be a better matchmaker than fate. Even while contesting her identity, she flaunts her own chutzpah. In “Making Heroes, Beginning with One Sentence,” Ceci morphs into Rosa, the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews who found refuge in a repressive Latin American country. Her father is a wealthy businessman, and when he is assassinated by revolutionaries, while she is off attending Northwestern University, Rosa, who reads Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Fanon, is ambivalent about the death of a capitalist. Yet she cannot rejoice in her symbolic patricide, and, during a chilly winter in Illinois, poses a question that haunts Wisenberg’s collection: “What are you doing here?”Whether the stress falls on the verb . doing \(wallowing in the adverb here \(Chicago? Central Wisenberg portrays an anxious woman at home and at ease only while fleeing. In “After the Procession,” Wisenberg’s version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” exposure of the fatuous but well-meaning monarch’s pretensions brings misfortune to the nation when he is forced to cede power to a successor who is properly clad but corrupt. The girl who dared to call the emperor naked is ostracized by her resentful neighbors. Forced into exile, she accepts her banishment as just. “It was right that I be outcast from the community,” she concludes. “The Frog/Prince” retells the old tale of the frog whom a kiss transforms into a handsome prince. However, this time, the protagonist is a lonely princessyet another version of Ceci Rubinwho feels trapped by her impending marriage to the former amphibian. At the end of the story, we see her casting off her royal robes and swimming away from her father’s kingdom, alone into the unknown, another Wisenberg princess who embraces abdication. In “My Mother’s War,” another story set in Jewish Houston but in which the mother, unlike Ruth Rubin, is an artistic rebel, Wisenberg poses the riddle: “What would you do if you were inside a brick house with scissors and a piece of paper?” Her answer is a puerile pun: “Cut the paper in half. Two halves make a whole. Crawl out through the hole.” As if to insist that authors are escape artists, the story ends by assert ing:”That is art.” Much of the fiction in The Sweetheart Is In is a drama of deliverance, of crawling out through a hole that only the artist can create. Though Ceci Rubin hopes to devise an art whose role is “to bind unlike peoples. To destroy differences. Be ambassador to souls,” her world is more aptly characterized as hollow than whole. While evading the romantic advances of a Reaganite professor named Stephen, Ceci “wants to be an artist who works for world peace.”Yet she is never at ease in the world. In “Pageant,” Ceci at age eight occasionally absents herself from weekend charm-school classes at Neiman’s and acting lessons at the Alley Theater’s children’s school. She travels with her mother through Texas to compete in talent contests in which her shtick is to declaim passages from edifying literary texts, such as the memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt or Helen Keller. But, though a frequent finalist, precocious Ceci rarely ever wins, because her presentations lack “words that reach into the audience and grab souls.” Grabbing souls is no less difficult for grownup writers. If S. L. Wisenberg so far fails in competition with those authors whose words seize and transform the soul, it is because, instead of exposing their acrid hearts, The Sweetheart Is In makes do with a skein of savvy assertions about its characters. “Brunch,” for example, details the overlapping liaisons of a couple of dozen political activists. But instead of dramatizing their passions, much of it merely iterates their ages and affiliations. “I am twenty-nine,” begins one paragraph. “Helen is twenty-eight. Bruce is thirty-two and has worked in three presidential campaigns. Sally is twenty-eight. Barry and Theo are both thirty. Sam is thirty-four. Ben is thirty-five….” Wisenberg continues with additional information without revelation. It takes more than bubble bath to penetrate beneath the froth, to the grit and tref of human flesh. Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at UT-San Antonio. 8/17/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29