[19 November 2013]
The O. Henry Prize Stories are always a welcome arrival on bookshelves. Each fall, lovers of short fiction get to either reconnect with stories they may have read in a favorite journal or magazine and/or discover others that somehow slipped by them. These collections are really gifts, then, a way for young writers to sniff out some of the competition, to get a sense of whom they should be reading and what publications they should be sending their own fiction to.
O. Henry has long offered a more peculiar collection than its Best American counterpart, another annual that lets readers show their appreciation for this most difficult art form. Even when stories from The New Yorker appear in an O. Henry collection they’re different, somehow, from your standard New Yorker story.
There are always familiar names. In this volume Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, and the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala represent those talents we’ve come to expect in pages such as this. But there are also always glimpses of new talent.
Derek Palacio’s first published story, “Sugarcane”, appears here and is arguably the best of the lot. Palacio doesn’t reinvent style, though he does write beautiful, sometimes Hemingway-esque sentences and creates a muted, hazy atmosphere for the reader. Reading this story, you can smell the Cuban soil on which his story is set and see sugarcane fields ablaze in your mind’s eye. It’s the story of a town doctor who takes on a pupil he doesn’t think has the talent to follow in his own footsteps, while he also takes on a younger lover who will never fully belong to him. It’s a beautifully constructed story that reads like a masterpiece of the modernist era.
There’s no adherence to a singular aesthetic. Kelly Link’s steam punk piece, “The Summer People”, sits alongside more traditional fare such as Munro’s “Leaving Maverly” and Deborah Eisenberg’s realistic but strange (and oh-so-complicated) “Your Duck Is My Duck”. And yet you can read the collection cover to cover or skip whole sections if you wish, landing on this gem or that. Of course, any reader will find bum notes, question the sanity and taste of the prize jury, or perhaps even the editor who chose the story for publication in the first place. That, too, is the special beauty of collections such as this, ones that show the dynamic range of fiction at this moment.
And, maybe more than that, the power of a simple story told well.
Nalini Jones’ beautifully rendered “Tiger” is an example; there’s an understatedness that compels the reader to turn the pages back to the beginning and read it again, seeking out the finer points of the writer’s craft. George McCormick follows this line too, with “The Mexican”, a piece inspired by the underappreciated writer William Kittredge’s “Stone Boat”. Polly Rosenwaike’s “White Carnations” examines the familiar with an unfamiliar eye. Each is haunting in its own way and each will warrant further appreciation.
If one wonders where to begin, the jurors might provide some guidance via the short essay each has penned on his or her favorite. Lauren Groff takes up “Your Duck Is My Duck”, Edith Pearlman champions “The Summer People”, and Jim Shepard (rather wisely) admires Andrea Barrett’s “The Particles”. Surprisingly, none take up Donald Antrim’s wonderful “He Knew” or Palacio’s “Sugarcane”. These two stories really are the best of them all. Well, at least to one reader.