The quality of the 20 stories in BASS in any given year is largely dependent on the judgment of the guest editor. And this year's guest editor, who had 120 stories from which to choose 20, is T.C. Boyle. If you have ever read T.C. Boyle stories (and I have, God help me! read all of them), you will know that Boyle likes "ripped from the headlines" action stories with lots of punch and snap. The following ten stories are largely plot-based stories. I will talk about the other ten stories, which have a bit more depth, and style next week.
"The Siege at Whale Cay," Megan Mayhew Bergman
Marion "Joe" Carstairs, famous as a lesbian who dressed as a man and had affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, bought the island Whale Cay in the Bahamas where she lived for more than 40 years, racing speedboats and entertaining lovers. This story focuses on a small town beauty named Georgie, one of Carstairs' "kept women" staying on the island when Marlene Dietrich comes for a visit. Would this piece (hardly a story) be interesting if it were not based on a famous "real-life" controlling iconoclast and a famous movie star? I don't think so. The story is from a collection of similar "real life" stories entitled Almost Famous Women about such women as Oscar Wilde's niece, Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, and Butterfly McQueen who played the maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind. It's an interesting idea, but this is not a great story.
"Fingerprints," Justin Bigos
Bigos says this story began as a memoir piece he wrote for a class under Elizabeth Strout when he was in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. When he picked it up again years later for a fiction workshop he was taking for his doctoral program, he revised it extensively, noting that although it was still a series of memories of his father, as well as his stepfather and mother, he wanted the story to be about "storytelling—how we tell the stories of ourselves and, especially of the people who torture us with their tainted love." Well, it seems to me to be primarily a series of memories—some perhaps actual, some perhaps invented. But nothing more than memories of an alcoholic father and a ex-con stepfather—all recalled or invented in short fragments—all traces of someone who has been there—fingerprints. Contrast this attempt to tell a story of fragments about storytelling and Denis Johnson's story, "The Largesse of the Sea Maidens," which T.C. Boyle rightly identifies as a "story about stories, about how we are composed of them and how they comprise our personal mythologies." I will talk about Johnson's story next week.
"Moving On," Diane Cook
This is a futuristic story about a society in which women live in shelters until they are "placed" with men, who are also placed in shelters until they are matched with a woman by a Case Manager. The story is told from the point of view of one such woman whose husband has died and is waiting to be placed with another man. After eight months, she is placed. In her "Contributor's Notes," Cook says the story arose from her thinking about people being left behind, people trying to find a way to "move on" with their lives when left. Although a story with such a theme as this could have been written realistically, Cook chooses to tell it as a kind of futuristic parable in which society has dealt with the problem of loss much the way animal shelters deal with it nowadays—finding someone to place a deserted animal with. To make the story work, the woman must be treated like an animal, but Cook must also find a way to make her needs human. I think this works sometimes and sometimes not.
"You'll Apologize if You Have To," Ben Fowlkes
This is a story about a boxer who has just lost a fight to a knockout and may be reaching the end of his career. As his coach says, "When the smell of the gym makes you sick, it's time to quit." He has an encounter with a man on the beach while smoking a joint and pushes the man down. The title comes from his realization that "You'll apologize if you have to" and he goes to the man's house and apologizes to his wife. The story really depends on the tough language of fighting, e.g. "He looked like he had an accident while ironing." "This seemed like the kind of dude you assaulted." "He was four days out from a knockout loss and I-don't-give-a-fuck had settled in." "Coach Vee would still have the ability to make him feel; like he was Dennis the Menace, running around with a slingshot in his back pocket." Without the tough-talking language, the story would have little interest.
"Happy Endings," Kevin Canty
The story of a fifty-nine-year-old man named McHenry who has lost his wife to cancer. He digs wells for a living in Montana, but gets outbid by a Japanese computer-controlled drilling outfit and sells his business. Lonely, he goes to a massage parlor where the "happy ending" of a massage for twenty dollars extra is masturbation. The pure sensual pleasure he experiences makes him feel guilty, but also unsure if what he has done or feels is wrong. And this is what the story is about—a man, who his whole life has felt there was something furtive about sex, finally coming to a "happy ending" in which he thinks sex might be a blessing rather than a curse. Simple enough, but at the same time not so simple. The style is appropriately restrained, and the key is to make the reader empathize with the character. I think it works.
"Motherlode," Thomas McGuane
Although "Motherlode," another Montana man story, is twice as long as "Happy Endings," what makes it longer adds nothing significant to the story, but rather just lots of "local color" about the characters, as the story just goes on and on—as if McGuane is getting paid by the word. The plot follows a Montana man, David, who makes his living helping ranchers with cattle breeding by doing inseminations. The plot begins when a man named Ray sticks a gun in his ribs an orders him to drive him to a ranch where the man is to hook up a woman named Morsel (yeah, you read that right, "Morsel) he has meet in an on-line dating service. The two men get involved in a drug deal, which, of course, "ends badly," as they say. Morsel gets shot, Ray gets shot, and when David lifts the lid of the trunk where the drugs are, while the drug baddie holds a gun in his ribs…. The end. I just read the McGuane collection Crow Fair, where "Motherlode" appeared, and I have to say I was not impressed by any of the stories. McGuane is not in the same league as others, such as Rick Bass and Annie Proulx, who have written about so-called "big sky" country.
"Unsafe at Any Speed," Laura Lee Smith
Smith says she has always liked cars and wanted to write a story about a car. She recalls when she was twenty-one she wanted to buy a used Corvair, but her father talked her out of it citing its unsafe rear-engine design. So she gave the car to her fictional character, forty-eight-year-old Theo Bitner travelling south in Florida intending to buy a Corvair and says the story "started to tell itself." She just stumbled on Ralph Nader's famous warning that the car was "Unsafe at Any Speed" and thought that would make a great title.
And that's about it, folks. It's a meaningless bit of escapist fun that any guy who likes cars or is tempted by mid-life crisis, or fantasizes about picking up a sexually-willing young woman with a purse full of money, or is sick of his job, etc. etc. will be happy to waste some time with.
"About My Aunt," Joan Silber
Silber said this story started when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 and she heard a radio report about older residents who got along well without water or electricity. When she started thinking about the idea of self-reliance, she came up with the aunt character she named Kiki. She then had to create a character to set up as a contrasting point of view, and came up with the young woman narrator named Reyna. Then she wanted Reyna to have something at stake, so she came up with her boyfriend who was serving time at Rikers Island for selling a small amount of drugs. Silber says, "I wanted the two women to understand each other just fine, but view each other across a great divide, where neither envies the other." The real key to the character of this rambling, random non-story is that after writing it, Silber saw it was less a short story than the first chapter of a novel. So what is in this piece?---, some stuff about Aunt Kiki's life in Turkey, some stuff about the blackout in New York after Sandy hit, some stuff about the narrator's relationship with her boyfriend, and some promise for a novel to come about these two women. Editor Pitlor says that chapters of novels are not considered for inclusion in BASS, but I guess since this first appeared in Tin House as a story and only later became a chapter in a novel, that's all right. But it still reads like a chapter in a novel, not like a short story.
"Kavitha and Mustafa," Shobha Rao
Because this story has the serious background of the India/Pakistan partition and because it deals with violence and death, one perhaps might feel that it must be taken more seriously than a story like, say, "Unsafe at Any Speed," which is basically just a plot-based story with some adventure and suspense. But this story is also basically adventure and suspense, focusing on a couple on a train attacked by bandits, which is the action that engages the reader throughout the story—an action-based event that might very well be an episode in an action film or television show. The author tells us that the action, however, is merely the excuse to explore the theme raised by the line "I was widowed long ago," which makes her think of marriages she has known in which widowhood came long before a death. After 90% of the story deals with the viciousness of the bandits and the terror of their victims, the last 10% resolves both the attack on the train and the woman's loveless relationship with her husband by her "choosing" a young boy (she is childless) who saves both of them with a couple of pebbles and a length of string.
"North," Aria Beth Sloss
Sloss says the story was inspired by Alec Wilkson's The Ice Balloon, about the failed attempt of S.A. Andree, a nineteenth-century Swedish inventor, to reach the North Pole in a hot air balloon. Andree's body was found thirty-three years later with his diaries and papers, which Wilkson used to write the book. You would think this would be the most obvious adventure story in this group, but not so. Sloss uses the adventure as a background context for a son's story about a mother's story of living with a man planning such an exploit. Actually, it is a story about a writer trying to use language to create a mythic story. Sloss is not as proficient at this as Alastair McLeod or Andrea Barrett. But I like this story better than the other adventure stories in this year's BASS because I am a sucker for mythic story and the kind of control of language necessary to create such a story.
Separating full paragraphs about the father's obsession and the mother's fascination/fear or losing her husband (all of which takes place before the son's/narrator's birth and thus evoked by his imagination) are short sentences like this: "He blinks, and he sky opens above him like an invitation." "The air is full of flying things." "The sky snuffs itself out like a candle." "His mind vibrates like a plucked string." The story does not end with the father's departure or death, but rather four months after his departure, when the son is born and the mother cuts the umbilical cord with a kitchen knife, saying "This is what women do…By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity."