I know, I’m way overdue of a rundown of the much-anticipated panel discussion on The Best American Short Stories 2010. To make up for the time you’ve no doubt spent refreshing your browser, we’re giving away a brand-spanking new copy of this year’s anthology, signed by editors Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor, and contributors Steve Almond and Brendan Mathews. Keep an eye out on Twitter for the official contest! In preparation for the big night, I spent the majority of my train rides and weekend mornings reading through the collection. Shane did an amazing job interacting with Heidi Pitlor’s introduction to the series, now for some bite-sized reviews for what’s inside. [SPOILER ALERT: So, do yourself a favor, and buy this book or follow us on Twitter for a chance to win it.]
“Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond
It’s no secret that Shane and I have an author crush on Steve Almond, and it’s not unfounded. He knows how to interact with his audience, read his stories in a manner that makes them a pleasure to watch. In short, he’s funny. Not in some disrespectful way, but in a way that communicates how much he’s enjoying himself. In a way that’s infectious. It’s the sort of thing that breeds from confidence, and after reading the first story, from Tin House, in this year’s anthology, his confidence is well earned.
“No animals were harmed,” he joked before beginning his reading. “No donkeys were punched.” Almond displays a distinct humor at his readings, and this story reveals the darker side of his jokes. When he began reading, I watched Richard Russo, editor of this year’s anthology, watching him with the same look I could feel forming on my face. The story uses the often overwrought metaphor of poker, and Steve Almond skillfully carries us through a similar delusion characteristic of compulsive gambling. Not only do we side with the narrator, but we begin to think like him, making the catharsis as much for ourselves as for the narrator in the end.
What I Wish I’d Written: “So he bid Artichoke Joe’s farewell – farewell green felt! Farewell ginger prawns! – and began playing in a weekly game with fellow analysts. The twenty-dollar buy-in, the nonalcoholic beer, the arthritic dithering over a seventy-five-cent raise; it was his penance.
Overall, he felt himself vaguely improved. He began to hike the Stanford Hills and reread Dostoevsky and brought Sharon to the Swiss Alps for a month. His older son, Ike, insisted on calling him Cisco, it being his impression that the Cisco Kid had been a famous gambler. Jacob continued to sneak into his office in the hopes of catching him playing online. “Check it before you wreck it, daddy-o,” he warned. Oss wanted very much to strike the boy, just once, near the eye.”
“Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff
Originally published in Glimmer Train, Groff’s story spends its entire 27 pages building. In our subconscious we can feel it, something coming, right behind us, gaining ground. The world is Paris, World War II, and Germany has begun moving into the city. The word delicate in the title is a great tip off to Groff’s use of language, her ability to tell us things without beating us over the head with them. The movement of war is represented by silence and stillness:
It was all over: they had awoken in the middle of the night to unnatural silence, and rose to an abandoned hotel, the door of each empty room solemnly thrust open, the beds identically smooth. In the breakfast room, the geranium’s soil was damp and their coffee was hot on the sideboard, but there was no on there but them. They were journalists; they had seen Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium; they knew what this meant.
Even as they move, all stuffed into a Jeep with cigarette smoke and tension, there is a calmness among them. Their journalistic isolation is established early on and assumed to serve as their protection. Bern, our protagonist and lone female for the majority of the narrative, is strong, respected, beautiful, an “everlasting firebrand.” We begin to believe so fully in her dominance of herself and her situation, that the story’s eventual turn is as devastating as it can possibly be. What we believe throughout the story is thrust into the light of the story’s setting, time period, cast of characters. Her strength dwindles as those who support her turn against her, as every bit of confidence she’s held in her own attractiveness turns against her in the end. It is a story of WWII, but also every human story of little hope and little time.
What I Wish I’d Written: “With the gravity of a religious ceremony, her tablemates flicked out fresh white napkins and veiled their faces with them. The porcelain girl held hers like a mantilla for a moment before she dropped it over her face. Bern did not: she watched, holding her breath, as each person reached for his own small bird and made it disappear behind the veil. For a long time, at least fifteen minutes, there were the wet sounds of chewing, small bones cracking, a lady’s voluptuous moan.”
“Further Interpretations of Real Life Events” by Kevin Moffett
In every collection, every anthology, there’s always one story that changes everything: The standards, your life, the way you think about yourself as a writer (oh, maybe that’s just me). For me, this was Moffett’s masterpiece, originally published in McSweeney’s. The narrator sorts through two kinds of fathers: His mentor and writing professor, and his actual father. The entire story is about the process of writing and of reading yourself in others’ stories, of communicating through non-fictions in the guise of fiction.
I hesitate to use the word meta in this case even though the writer’s talking about writing and reading and there are so many layers of non-fiction, fiction, memoir, that I eventually gave up and just read it as a story. He captures the struggle between writing personal truths into your fiction, the sometimes overwhelming inability to view your life in any other way than a part of a bigger story you’re responsible for writing. It can be lonely writing so many tiny worlds,but imagine the loneliness and frustration a writer feels when he can’t turn those same edits on real life. The narrator experiences this in his own life, recollecting a trip to an amusement park soon after his mother died: “I cringe when I remember this day. I want to revise everything. I want to come down with food poisoning, or lose a couple of fingers on the Raptor, something to mar the flawless good time I was having. Now I have to mar it in memory, I have to remember it with a black line through it.”
Moffett does such a flawless job; any characteristics of the story that could be labeled – meta or otherwise – fling off these labels with such force that we’re almost embarrassed to have named them in the first place. The narrator and his father are such complete characters, with a nuanced conflict that resists outbursts and tears and goes straight for the jugular. Moffett elicits emotion and vulnerability without ever going near it. Hands down, my favorite story of the collection.
What I Wish I’d Written: “I quit writing for a few weeks and went out into the world. I visited the airport, the beach, a fish camp, a cemetery, a sinkhole. I collected evidence, listened, tried to see past my impatience to the blood-radiant heart of things. I saw a man towing a woman on the handlebars of a beach cruiser. They were wearing sunglasses. They were poor. They were in love. I heard one woman say to another: Everyone has a distinct scent, except me. Smell me, I don’t have any scent.”