“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere.”
— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I couldn’t agree with Mary Gaitskill’s introduction to the Best New American Voices 2009 more. Gaitskill begins by citing the depressing fact that reading for pleasure is on the decline. By extension, the short story’s marvelous heyday (Lish! Carver! Hempl! Those wonderful Vintage paperbacks!) is prehistory, pre-net, pre-cell phone, possibly even predating electricity.
I nodded along sadly, thinking of my day job. I work with undergraduates in a prestigious university, where I have the good fortune to work in the library, a beautiful old building with marble staircases and a bronzed patina. One day last year a freshman walked into my office and asked me where the books were.
I tried to hide my shock. “Under our feet,” I said. I work on the fourth floor. The stacks are underground, reached by a skylit spiraling staircase.
“But where?” She asked again, clearly desperate. “How do I find the TR section?”
I am not a librarian. Nor did this young woman know me. She simply lit on a friendly stranger. Evidently it never occurred to her that she could wander round this marvelous, elegant building, as I once had, tap experimentally into one of the many computers available for searches (oh, for the card catalogue, its smell of wood and thick vellum cards) and figure out the library, with its endless treasure trove of books.
I explained the Library of Congress system. She thanked me. I refrained from commiting suicide on the spot.
So when Gaitskill brought her “nobody is reading talk”, to a Portland, Oregon high school, where she said movies were overtaking books, equating writers with janitors, she was shocked when a young man raised his hand, and in a pained stutter, said:
“I totally disagree. Writers are not just like taxi drivers or janitors. When you read a book it affects you in a way a movie can’t. It can take you into the minds of people you wouldn’t normally know. It changes how you think. And if enough people are changed it changes the world.”
Gaitskill told him she’d never been so happy to be disagreed with in her life. I concur. So, I think would Annie Dillard.
Yet I was nervous, approaching Best New American Voices 2009: Fresh Fiction From the Top Writing Programs. The subtitle, with that loaded phrase, Writing Programs (read: writers’ workshop), had me worried. What if there were lots of pomo stories, with line drawings and one word per page? What if there were doppelganger narrators named after their authors? What if every story was “my fight with my parents as I assimilated to American teendom, only to discover they were right all along?”
But I have implicit trust in Gaitskill, a tremendous writer (Haven’t read Veronica? Get thee to the bookstore!), and my trust was well placed. The immigration stories are some of the best in the book. But there are no illustrations or eponymous characters. Instead, most of Best New American Voices 2009 features the kind of stories that briefly and gloriously dominated the literary scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (Gaitskill rode this wave with her own Vintage paperback collection, Bad Behavior.), stories that set characters moving through moments smaller but no less important than their brethren out dancing on the novel’s larger stage.
“Yellowstone”, the opening story, is among the weaker contributions. Hurst, an elderly gentleman, is following his partner Emily’s casket from Calgary to her home near Yellowstone for her burial. Emily was not his lover, but a partner in old age. Plans go awry when an earthquake delays the internment. Author Baird Harper evokes Hurst and the hostile town of Carson deftly, but Hurst’s interactions with a young girl and her prostitute mother struck me as highly unrealistic, as did the ending. Still, Harper’s ability to inhabit an old man’s loneliness is striking, as seen in Hurst’s small, failed efforts to wash his clothing, his attachment to Emily’s ratty bathrobe.
In Will Boast’s “Weather Enough”, protagonist Tim is leading an empty life in Chicago, only to be called home when his teenaged brother John is killed in an automobile accident. Tim was close to John until he left home; John then fell in with a bad crowd, including best friend Mason Kersch, also killed in the accident. When Mason’s older brother Hayden approaches Tim at John’s funeral, seeking friendship, the pair begin a relationship, leading to further grief.
Anastasia Kolendo’s “Wintering”, set in the freezing Russian village of Kliukovka, is an exercise in changed expectations and the possibilities of love. Varvara, a dedicated student from the sunnier town of Sochi, is forced to live with her unpleasant grandfather after her mother is imprisoned for accidentally killing a pedestrian. Nervy and intelligent, Kolendo’s Varvara offers the best dialogue in the book. On finding her way to her grandfather’s from the train station:
“I thought you were meeting me at the station.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“Oh? It might’ve helped if you’d been there to look.”
Sharon May’s “The Monkey King”, depicts the actions Buddhists take to protect themselves from the Khmer Rouge. Ordered to kill monkeys, the narrator forces himself to become expert, apologizing to each animal before killing it, never failing note how very human they appear once stripped of their pelts.
“Little Stones, Little Pistols, Little Clash” describes the plight of musicians who fall under the spell of warring wordsmiths, whose invented lyrics evoke mayhem. Much of the story is written in a sort of hyped prose catching the economic, social, and emotional hysteria of the la vida musica. The sentences were getting on my nerves until author Jacob Rubin, describing a funeral, came out with this gorgeous collection of words:
“The rabbi then stood over the grave and intoned some things in Hebrew that none of us understood, though a fool could tell, just from the sounds, that they were ancient and meaningful…the sounds of that old punished language—it was beautiful.”
Mehdi Tavana Okasi’s “Salvation Army” is a stunner—moving between Iran in 1986 and Malden, Massachusetts in March 1994, Okasi shows us what a short story can do in gifted hands. When Heideh Tehrani refuses her husband Hassan’s demand that she stop teaching poor children, he retaliates by arranging for her students to be picked by the Army, where they become human targets in the war against Iraq. Heideh, horrified and guilt-stricken, flees her husband in the night, taking her small two sons with her to America. The boys, too young to remember life in Iran or the father they are told is dead, become oblivious American adolescents, fond of cartoons and sugary cereal. When the elder child, Reza, hides a poor report card from Heideh, her worlds, so carefully held apart, collide brutally.
Okasi’s skill is such that he is reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri, and for every “Best Of” volume containing fine stories from authors who vanish, we must hope Okasi has a top agent waving his work at any publishing house still standing.
Larry N. Mayer’s “Love for Miss Dottie” about a maid certain of her rights to Dorothy Parker’s ashes, is written entirely in dialect—not quite Ebonics, but we are to understand the nameless narrator is poor, African-American, and a neighbor of the misled Miss Ruby Williams. Here is Anne Lamott on dialect, from Bird by Bird:
“One last thing: dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine. If other writers read your work and rave about your use of dialect, go for it. But be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect. It makes our necks feel funny.”
Larry Mayer could argue that he made the cut into this book, and he would have a point. But reading “Love for Miss Dottie” might make your neck feel funny.
Erin Brown’s “Mules” is about a couple—older, well-off, white—whose guilt over their good fortune leads them to attempt a run of AIDS drugs into Africa. While the results fall short of disastrous, they are humiliated in the way of tourists far out of their depth, and we feel both sorry and scornful of them.
“Look Ma, I’m Breathing” is about Isabel, a young writer who hardly expects her explicit memoir to attract a stalker, a would-be landlord. Though Isabel is physically unharmed, her psyche is wounded; what emerges is a rather self-involved, insecure woman whose stalker’s disturbing insights leave her unable to write.
“Statehood” is the honorary written-in-second-person story. We have Jay McInerney to thank or excoriate for this (Vintage strikes again!) story of Tito, an adolescent Puerto Rican boy who lives with his father, a ruffian lawyer. Tito’s mother, suffering from OCD and seeking the attentions of a teenaged husband, has no time for her son. Tito, meanwhile, sees both parents’ failings through a razor-sharp, wisecracking eye. Too early he is an expert: at drinking Boone’s on the rocks, pretending its fruit juice; at winning darts and smoking pot with one of his father’s four girlfriends; at realizing he is the true adult among full-sized children.
Theodore Wheeler’s “Welcome Home” is another standout story—that of an Iraqi veteran returning to Nebraska. During his time in Iraq, Jim Scott could not bring himself to fire his gun. He did everything else methodically, perfectly, but could not shoot. He is ashamed of this, and finds his homecoming difficult—the uncomprehending smiles of his young wife, Andrea, of his in-laws, of the party held in his honor, complete with a sheet cake decorated with toy soldiers bearing guns. Adding to Jim’s discomfort is his aged dog’s Sasha’s obvious poor health. He accuses Andrea of not caring properly for the dog; the couple bicker, unable to find the easy happiness they shared before. The story ends on a heartbreaking note.
Of all the contributors, only Nam Le has established himself as a known writer. His “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” lives up to the hype. A young Vietnamese-Australian suffering writer’s block at Iowa is visited by his father, a rigid, bitter man who survived My Lai. Le drinks too much, writes little, and hides his American girlfriend from his father. He avoids writing about “the ethnic experience” until an amusing exchange with a classmate. Both men are drunk, stumbling home as the white writer admits that ethnic writing is the hot ticket, that just being Chinese or Peruvian was enough, “vocab” or character be damned. Stop writing about lesbian vampires, advises Le, and write about Boat people. Le’s attempt to do this draws him both further and closer to his father.
The final two stories, “The Fantôme of Fatma” and “The Still Point” are the kind of short stories lacking definition by virtue of their form. Both are well-written, but left me shaking my head: I’d missed something. In “The Fantôme of Fatma”, Otis Haschemeyer gives the reader a disparate group of Americans in Mali, ostensibly there to climb the challenging mountains. Near the Homburi Mountains, they encounter the Fantôme, a speechless teenaged boy who hops nimbly amongst the dangerous crags, heights, and handholds as the Americans struggle with their equipment, confidence, and jealousies.
The story is seen through the eyes of Miles, who is along with his insecure girlfriend, Wolfy. Never, ever give a character a name like Wolfy without offering some explanation. All I could think about was why in hell a blonde with a name like Wolfy was jealous of Deon, a black girl in training for the ministry, who does not climb and swears like a longshoreman. These things are never explained, though Haschemeyer does an admirable job of analyzing Wolfy’s psyche via Miles, who understands her insecurities and loves her despite them. The group, in classic American style, rigs the Fantôme up in their mountain gear to see what happens: nothing and everything, the classic clash when white Americans wander into something they have no clue about under tourist auspices.
Lydia Peele’s “The Still Point” is the escape story of the bunch. The-something terrible-happened-leaving-me-to-wander story. We get Cole, the loner from Virginia, whose twin Clay was killed in an automobile accident 15 years ago. Cole is wandering with a second-rate carnival, ambling aimlessly westward, selling junk to tourists and screwing Kathy, the chicken griller, whose husband is more interested in his guitar. Clay is adrift, wanting nothing more than to be moving from nothingness to nothingness on the road. The story is anchored by a teenaged beauty queen, already a parent, and a tornado, which Clay longs to be in the middle of, disappearing into nothingness. Again, Peele is a fine writer but the story lacks freshness or resolution.
Serious reading, it seems, really is in decline; by extension, short story reading is declining further. Like poetry, it is fast becoming a niche passion, written and read by a devoted if decimated few. Which is all the more reason why you should read Best New American Voices 2009, and maybe a few other short story collections while you’re at it. Face it: the holidays are looming, and they wreck concentration. Why try bearing down on War and Peace when you could be finding escape, solace, and good writing in short fiction? Dip in, read, surface refreshed, ready for another go-round at the mall or the holiday table. Save Tolstoy for the New Year.