Coach House/Longriver Press, $7

Bobbie Louise Hawkins' Almost Everything is just that. It leaves out her scattered poems and any direct reference to her two unhappy marriages and the children they produced. What remains, two collections of short prose pieces and nine new stories, run a mere 172 pages -- the condensed version of a life punctuated, as Tillie Olsen might put it, by "silences." So when Hawkins speaks, it's that much more pungent.

The book begins with "Back to Texas," Hawkins's account of driving with her mother from Albuquerque to visit various relatives in West Texas, a landscape of sticker patches and mesquite trees, horizon as far as you can see on all sides, and a native language both colorful and plain-spoken. The trip is a perfect framework for the kind of oral family history that consists of stories beginning "You knew he shot himself?" or "When Mama had pelligrisy..." Divided between verbatim dialogue and fill-in-the-blanks reminiscence, the history is juicy with detail about characters like Aunt Ethel, who held family prayer meetings every night "to get back at anybody who had irritated her during the day," and her daughter Velma, who once spent weeks mailing postcards to a radio station to win a meeting with Eddy Arnold but then got "gloriously saved" and threw out all her cowboy records "except the religious ones."

Hawkins's prose, meanwhile, is dry to the bone. Where Roy Blount or Garrison Keillor would want to get cute and back into caricature, Hawkins gets tough and accurate, like when she talks about people who don't know they're poor. Retracing her childhood, she sees exactly how poor they were, where it hurt, and where it didn't. "The corrosion of time is accelerated by poverty. Things grow old aster. Cheap dresses hung unevenly from their first washing. Plastic buttons melt against the iron. Cheap bright colors fade and run. Cheap shoes begin to curl up at the toes the first wearing, reaching for that foetal position old shoes take when they die...In all that grubbiness and unspoken despair the children were the joy. Their necks were nuzzled, their sides and feet were tickled to make them scream. They slept and waked in poverty's matriarchy."

Hawkins half-consciously wants to set down the kind of women's history usually heard only over kitchen tables when the menfolk aren't around, and she thoroughly succeeds, whether the subject is how to cook liver and onions, geriatric sex, or sexual harassment at work. "A Moral Tale," the last and finest of the new stories that close Almost Everything, surveys Hawkins's short career selling advertising for a small-town TV station. The new sales manager, puzzled over Hawkins's lack of enthusiasm for the job, wonders if she'd like to make extra cash by escorting company bigwigs when they come to town. "It's always been a flaw in my moral makeup that I just don't get indignant and righteous and brain people and feel insulted when they come up with something interesting," she writes. "Anyway, when he finished his sales pitch, I explained to him that being poor meant there were lots of things I couldn't afford. But I could keep on affording the luxury of only going to bed with somebody when I cared for them a lot and probably not even then. 'That doesn't cost me a dime,' I said. We didn't bother mentioning that it had just cost me a lousy job."

I've been reading these stories for years in their original chapbook editions and hearing Hawkins perform them on her periodic club tours with folk singers Terri Garthwaite and Rosalie Sorrels, and I am still astonished by their extraordinary compression of information, their voice (as particular as Hawkins's own Southwestern drawl), their humor, their lived wisdom. The only time she falters is when she forsakes folksy narrative for Gertrude Steinian attempts to pin down emotions; then she wanders into vagueness and not-quite-poetry. The attempt to capture an abstraction pays off only once, in "Take Love, for Instance," when she describes the "divine emotion," that "longing that drives us until if we are fortunate, lucky in love, we have a brief relief that shines like fulfillment."

A brief relief that shines like fulfillment.

"And then, or somewhat later, downhill all the way."

Village Voice Literary Supplement, February 1983