I often feel a mixture of both dread and excitement at the prospect of a modern American short story anthology. Readers who gravitate to them have for years been motivated by what they got from the standards of their education: Vonnegut, Cheever, Updike, Oates, Carver, and more. The structure of such standard bearers was inextricably linked with style and tone. Fans and students of the short story form can at times recite verbatim major passages from these writers and more.
Years pass, cultural perspectives change, but the short story remains among the most difficult forms to master. When it’s a modern gem it’s nearly impossible to identify the source of the brilliance. The reader swoons from the excitement of entering a world so perfectly realized. When it’s a clunky monolith, an edifice of indistinguishable shape with no discernible sign of life, it fails to leap from the page and our dread that the magic of the classic short story will never be recaptured is once again validated.
The Story Prize: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction, however, is a beautiful celebration of works from the famous and celebrated (Tobias Wolff, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth McCracken, George Saunders), to newer voices, “other” voices. In his introduction, editor Larry Dark notes that any attempt at finding a common theme from these 14 stories will be difficult. Writer Patrick O’Keeffe offers a graceful elegiac novella (“The Postman’s Cottage”) that glimmers with the green of its setting Ireland. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Saleema” explores (with an epic scope) the life and times of a Pakistani servant. Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” is a long story equally rich in scope that brings us to Cape Town South Africa.
If there’s a common thread in these stories, each specifically taken from short story collections submitted to Dark and Julie Lindsey (co-founders of The Story Prize) by the given writers, it’s probably how beautifully they play with and control time. Consider the work of paring down all the submissions from the approximately 200 on their long list to 42 finalists to finally, these selections. These stories that have “made it” don’t immediately seem any different from or better than selections included in the more established annual short story collections. Dark notes the limited commercial appeal of short story collections and the reader comes to an understandable conclusion that the biggest impetus that drives the stories in this volume is the creative drive of their authors.
These stories have been pulled from their birth families, if you will, to exist in this new collection and compel the reader to seek out how well they worked in their original form. Above and beyond that consideration is their aforementioned mastery of time. In the 2009 winner “Bullet in the Brain”, (from Our Story Begins, Knopf, 2008) Tobias Wolff’s hero Anders is a cynical critic who meets his ending when he enters a bank. Anders didn’t remember much (his first lover, his wife, his daughter, all the poems he’d memorized) until everything combined. “He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.” The bullet enters, does its damage, and leaves. That’s when Anders will have time for everything.
In the first story, Edwidge Danticat’s “The Book of Miracles” (from The Dew Breaker, Knopf, 2004), the length is a little longer yet the time frame is the same. A family is enjoying Christmas Eve, the lights and sights and everything else. They enter a church and think they see the exiled Haitian President (wanted for orchestrating the torture, rape, and murder of 5,000 people) in the crowd of parishioners. The family finds strength in each other, in the blessings that they are still alive. The reader feels thrilled at the possibility of everything going to hell on a beautiful evening. The citation introducing this story (each selection is preceded by the story citation or a passage from an interview with or remarks from the writer) nicely touches on the little details Danticat includes. They are assembled, properly positioned with each other, and their cumulative effects on their characters is overwhelming.
There is grief and kidnapping in Elizabeth McCracken’s 2015 winner “Something Amazing” (from Thunderstruck & Other Stories, Dial Press, 2014) McCracken noted in an onstage interview that there has always been a joke to be made in the worst moments of her life. A six-year-old is missing, but the world goes on. “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways,” she writes. Another boy goes missing, and there’s a palpable sense of dread. This one glimmers with details: a tacky paint job, animal-shaped bubble bath containers, a striped fabric dress, and Mexican jumping beans.
In Adam Johnson’s 2016 story “Nirvana”, (from Fortune Smiles, Random House, 2015), the mood is strange and beautiful. It’s about paralysis, virtual Presidents, and Kurt Cobain. A man’s wife is paralyzed from the neck down. He has created a way to access an unnamed assassinated President, to have discussions and seek counsel. This becomes popular with others. They can also access him, seek advice and comfort from his continued revived presence. Johnson’s prose makes this glow: “I understand that he is a ghost who will haunt us until our nation comes to grip with what has happened…” Cobain eventually appears for the paralyzed woman and the mood becomes (obviously) even more tragic. Johnson manages to seamlessly balance all these fantastic elements in such a way that they become real.
Rick Bass’s 2016 story “How She Remembers It” (from For a Little While: New and Selected Stories, Little, Brown and Company, 2016) works beautifully with tone and atmosphere. A young woman (Lilly) is on a road trip out of Missoula with her forgetful father. They observe their surroundings: bald eagles, deers, and “swollen-bellied fawns”. She becomes scared when she sees something different in her father when they’re confronted with the prospect of being a Good Samaritan. Lilly notices, later in the story, another man coming to observe this interaction:
“What would it be like to be him… the man the stained T-shirt… Only her own victory of being loved deeply allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings.”
Elizabeth Strout’s 2018 story “The Sign” (from Anything Is Possible, Random House, 2017) is a heartbreaking jewel that opens with the hero’s dairy farm burning to the ground. It’s a masterfully distilled example of how to introduce a character, impose a situation, and make it impossible for us to leave. Of the fire, she writes: “Once it started, it ripped with a fury over the whole place.” This 35-year-old-hero (Tommy Guptill) “…thought of the fire as a sign from God to keep this gift tightly to him.” It had been a good life, and as he builds his new existence as a janitor at the local high school he develops connections with a community whose people are equal parts elusive and embracing. Strout works seamlessly through the years with this story and we cling to every line as miniature truths are revealed. She writes: “It was not Tommy’s nature to regret things.” The more time we spend with this character the clearer it becomes that he could fit well in the worlds writer Willa Cather created in the early 20th century. This is no surprise from Strout, whose Pulitzer-Prize winning 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge (Random House) proved that great classic style has no expiration date.
The biggest thrill in such collections as The Story Prize probably comes from the surprise of the new, from meeting writers like Claire Vaye Watkins. In the 2013 winner “Ghosts, Cowboys” (from Battleborn, Riverhead, 2012), we start at the Spahn Ranch in California. Watkins, daughter of former Manson family member Paul Watkins, dives into this dark world of a cult family on the eve of its apocalypse without reservation. The character has a hard time starting her narrative. There’s a word picture she paints of George Spahn and his dilapidated ranch, the backdrop to so many Hollywood Western movies. The form dies out in the early ’60s and by 1966 Spahn files for bankruptcy.
The Manson family appears shortly thereafter. Watkins seems to be writing a hybrid fictional memoir here, and it’s chilling: “About once a year someone tracks me down. Occasionally it’s one of Charlie’s fans wanting to stand next to Paul Watkin’s daughter, to rub up against all that’s left…” This is a story about survivors, the vast expanse of a cowboy ranch, like a deserted Western movie set, where movie producers with a script to pitch about that life and those times contact Watkins for something more than just a business transaction:
“They never want my permission to make their movie or input on who should play me… they just want to know how am I.”
Immediately afterwards Watkins writes: “How are you?” they say. Within the context of this short story her initial wording is interesting. Notice how she places that present tense first person singular of “to be” placed before the “I”. It’s as if she’s asking: how am I still here? Through “Ghost, Cowboy” Watkins proves that the legacy of such a dark past courtesy of her father and his friends is never that far away.
Steven Millhauser’s work is always a thrill to behold, and his 2012 story “Snowmen” (from the collection We Others, Knopf, 2011) is no different. He opens with a beautiful full-paged winter scene: “Down below, the backyard had vanished. In its place was a dazzling white sea…” The hero and his friends are amazed at the tableaux of families and scenarios played out in the form of snowmen on neighborhood lawns: snowmen fighting against an invisible wind, snowmen bowing deeply in greeting to passersby. Snow fountains mix with gargoyles, trolls, ogres and elves. The morning displays the beauty of these snowmen, but by afternoon they “…achieve freedoms so dangerous that they threaten to burn out the eyes of the beholders.”
The same coldness and frozen mood building happens in the title story to George Saunders’s 2014 collection Tenth of December Thorndike Press, 1800). It’s all frozen rivers, short fuses, and a kid in the pond whose fate is palpably felt. Mary Gordon’s 2007 story “My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog” (from The Stories of Mary Gordon, Pantheon, 2006) works equally well as an exercise in sharply-observed recollections of conversations and reactions, complete with a sweet happy ending. She notes in a transcription of a WNYC interview:
“Things almost come to one as if they were music, and that steers something that you never would have thought of on your own.”
The longer stories are top-loaded in this volume, and the reader prone to cherry-picking may become restless if they start here. As exercises in contained structure and concentrated tone, the shorter stories simply work better. They might not necessarily be better, but they soar in comparison to stories like Patrick O’Keeffe’s “The Postman’s Cottage” (from The Hill Road, Viking, 2005). As a quarter of the four long stories that comprise that book, it’s probably better appreciated within its context. It’s an Irish story with a large family, a secluded village, and dark repressed desires and resentments never quite boiling to the top.
Anthony Doerr’s 2011 story “Memory Wall” (from the eponymously titled collection, Scribner, 2010) proves even more thick and complex. O’Keeffe and Doerr demand a lot of their readers. Doerr story is probably more successful in that he seems to understand that the premise of the Memory Wall, its literary gimmick, is strong enough to sustain its length. The common bond between these two is the persistence of memory. O’Keeffe’s is burdened by an Irish culture sensibility that will take longer to appreciate for readers unfamiliar with the style.
How do we manage with the burden of memory? In Daniyal Mueenuddin’s 2010 story “Saleema” (from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, W.W. Norton, 2009) the Pakistani setting is as universal as any in this anthology. He notes in an onstage interview that “…people basically live within the same range of emotion…” This is the connecting fiber that links it with O’Keeffe’s Irish story, but “Saleema” is a stronger effort. It’s about the burden of memory and the dark truths of old age. Jim Shephard’s 2008 story “The Zero Meter Diving Team” (from the collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Knopf, 2007) beautifully illustrates what Shephard does best. He becomes one of the chief engineers of the Department of Nuclear Energy in Chernobyl in April 1986, when it all went to hell. Another character, Mikhail, nicely encapsulates the way Shephard always nails the essence of his characters in historically troubled or disastrous situations:
“…Are you weeping? The investigator is weeping!”
The Story Prize definitely meets the apparent objective of editor Larry Dark and others involved with the annual ceremony that has included in its list of finalists such luminaries as Don Delillo, Charles Baxter, and Lorrie Moore. Absorbing and contextualizing the strength of these stories takes time and effort and will reap great rewards. Other annual anthologies (like Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories) might feature some of the same names found here, but the greatest difference between those collections and this one is that The Story Prize should compel the serious short story reader to seek out their favorite selection in its original context.