The Best American Short Stories 2009 came out in Oct. last year; The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2010 came out in April of this. With twenty stories in each volume and priced on Amazon at about ten bucks each for the paperback, they are the two best bargains out there for any lover of the short story form. You may not like every story in the collection, may even shake your head in wonder that a given story was chosen as one of the ”best” of the year, but you will find God’s plenty in these two books, and I guarantee it will be twenty dollars well spent.
While celebrating May as Short Story Month, doubling my blog efforts by reading the Atlantic Special Issue and commenting on stories for Dan Wickett’s Emerging Writers blog from Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming, I have also been reading the new Best and the new O. Henry. I will only comment briefly on my favorites among these forty to whet your appetite, while trying to avoid spoilers.
Annie Proulx’s “Them Old Cowboy Songs” from her third (and final, she says) Wyoming Stories volume, Fine Just the Way It Is, was chosen for both volumes. Proulx bookends the stories in her book by citing its title in the first and last tale. In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity. Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.” The way it was, and often still is, is vicious. Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you. In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” Archie and Rose, aged 16 and 14, try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few, and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.
Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which originally appeared in The Southern Review, also makes it in both volumes. Rash says the story combines a family tale of his grandfather leading a search for an old woman who wandered away from her mountain farm in the 1930’s with an image of a man running from something, although he seemed too old to be running. Rash says he soon began to understand that the man was running from a world he no longer understood. “Into the Gorge” is a short, relatively simple story, told with just enough restraint to suggest legend, without laying on too strongly the social theme of the Appalachian Mountains being invaded by the restraints and regulations of the modern world.
One advantage the O. Henry collection has over the Best volume is that it contains a story each by the two very best short story writers still practicing that underrated art--Alice Munro’s “Some Women” and William Trevor’s “Woman in the House.”
Although Alice Munro has insisted in more than one place that she does not write as a novelist does, many critics and reviewers have tried to give her fiction the dignity they think belongs only to the novel by suggesting that her stories are “novelistic” and therefore more complex than short stories. In a story entitled “Fiction” in her new book, Too Much Happiness, Munro cannot not resist a wily jab at all those critics who have trivialized the short story as a genre and chided her for not writing something more serious, namely novels. Joyce, the central character, buys a book written by a woman she has met briefly at a party. When she opens it, she is disappointed to find out it is a collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seemed to diminish the book’s importance, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside it.” After climaxing a distinguished career of numerous awards with the Man Booker International Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2009, Munro must have had a sly smile on her face when she wrote those words.
“Some Women” begins with the narrator saying how amazed she is sometimes at how old she is, but focuses on her experiences when she was thirteen-years-old and hired to help care for a young man named Bruce, a veteran of the war, who is dying of Leukemia. He is staying in the house of his stepmother, Old Mrs. Crozier. His wife, Sylvia, a schoolteacher, seems to be living on the fringes of his life and his illness. Old Mrs. Crozier’s masseuse, Roxanne, bursts into the house like a dynamo and takes an interest in Bruce, who plays the role of a kind of ailing Fisher King, a sort of sacred prize in the center of the women. A usual with the short story, “Some Women” amasses its weight on its ending when Bruce turns the tables on Roxanne and Mrs. Crozier, finding the comfort he needs in his neglected wife.
Alice Munro’s short stories are complex and powerful not because they are “novelistic” and not so much because of what happens in them, but because of what cannot happen except in the mysterious human imagination. More polished and profound than she has ever been, Alice Munro is the preeminent practitioner of the short story--and one of the most brilliant writers in any genre—in the world today.
William Trevor, by universal critical agreement, is one of the best short-story writers practicing that underrated art form. The twelve stories in his most recent collection, Cheating at Canasta, reaffirm that he has a profound understanding of the complexity of what makes people do what they do and an unerring ability to use language to suggest that intimate intricacy.
As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. This is not accidental, but part of the short story’s historical and generic tradition, for the form originated in primitive myth, which, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for which story was the only explanatory model available. Moreover, the short story is often concerned with the enigma of motivation. Part of the reason for this is the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some mysterious force.
“The Woman of the House” is about silence, about not saying, about the basic mystery of human personality, about Chekhov's famous comment that in the short story, it is better to say too little than too much, even though he admitted he was not sure why that was true. The story is a fine example of the short story form's focus on basic and universal human characteristics, even though I know that the word "universal" is not appreciated by postcolonial and other cultural critics, who seem more concerned with what separates us than what unifies us as human beings.
These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. Luminous, restrained stories, every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.
Daniel Alarcon has stories in both collections, “The Idiot President” in the Best and “The Bridge” in the O. Henry. I liked “The Bridge” best for its haunting exploration of the death of a blind man and his blind wife in Alarcon’s native city of Lima, Peru. Alarcon says that the story began with an anecdote of a fallen pedestrian bridge and the accidental death of a blind person, but that as he began the story he had no fixed sense of where it was going or where it might end, which, he says, he has found to be the most exciting way to write. It’s an interesting observation about the writing process that I wish others would comment on, for I have heard many writers say the same thing.
One story in the Best collection that I had read earlier is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s “Yurt,” from her elegant little collection Ms. Hempel Chronicles. Caught between two worlds, Ms. Hempel is young enough to understand the lyrics of her students’ favorite songs, but old enough to feel she should be shocked by them. Although she loves her job and her young charges, she fears she may be doomed to always repeat the seventh grade.
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum is another one of those precocious Iowa Workshop graduates, who, like her alter ego, served a brief term teaching seventh and eighth grade before moving on to graduate school. The publishers of this, her second book, know better than to use the label “short stories” on the cover or in the promotional material, hoping readers will assume this too is a novel. But make no mistake. Ms. Hempel Chronicles is a collection of very fine stories, tightly organized, lyrical in style, metaphoric and mysterious, linked by their focus on the pains and pleasures of the young schoolteacher who gives the book its name. Ms. Hempel’s relationships with her students, her fellow teachers, her brother, and her father are all delicately drawn. Her efforts to be a good teacher, although she is never quite sure this is what she is meant to do, are heartfelt and convincing. She will make readers remember fondly one of those teachers they loved.
I thought the O. Henry volume was stronger this year than the Best volume, or maybe I just liked more of the stories in the O. Henry volume. “The Headstrong Historian” by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is wonderfully told tale in the accents of the traditional storyteller, and “A Spoiled Man” by Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, is a powerful story about a favorite subject of short fiction-the little man—told with such consummate control that what is classically causal sounds everyday casual. I posted a couple of blogs about Mueenuddin last year when his debut collection Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which has won or been short-listed for several awards, came out.
Being the old Kentucky boy that I am, I can never resist a story by Wendell Berry, and, his Atlantic story “Stand By Me” is, as always, a pleasure. It’s also a pleasure to discover a new writer, who has been around a while. James Lasdun has published several books, but for some reason I never had read him before. His story “Oh, Death,” from his most recent collection It’s Beginning to Hurt, may not have the same elegiac power as the Ralph Stanley song from which it gets its title, but it makes the heart tighten a bit for all that. That opening stanza of the Stanley song never fails to make me fear that inevitable “good night,” against which I fully intend to rage.
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
The children prayed, the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I'll fix your feet til you cant walk
I'll lock your jaw til you cant talk
I'll close your eyes so you can't see
This very air, come and go with me
I'm death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To draw up the flesh off of the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim
Lasdun, born in England, but living now in upstate New York, says that one element he brought to the story to give expression to the powerful emotions the event on which it is based aroused in him was the “mountain music” the narrator has become infatuated with, concluding, “I hope something of the wild energy and pathos, the joy and melancholy, of that music has found its way into the story.” I think it has. I just ordered a copy of It’s Beginning to Hurt and look forward to reading all the stories in it. That’s another wonderful thing about reading the stories in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award Stories—the discovery of great writers you somehow missed, an error that you want to correct right away.