Yeah. I’ll admit it. I read Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Short Stories every year.
This series began in 1915. I’ve been reading it faithfully since, I think, 1984. I still remember the total shock I felt when I first wandered into, and got ambushed by, a Raymond Carver story. That was in one of these books. Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, T. C. Boyle — I met them all here. I love it that the book’s appearance has never changed — it’s still charmingly under-designed, feeling more like a galley than like a finished book, which is perfectly okay with me and probably helps maintain the unusually reasonable price of 14 bucks.
I thought I’d report occasionally on the 2005 edition, which is edited by Michael Chabon. I’m only three stories in, so far, and Alice Munro has let me down. I don’t hate her sad-sack mother-daughter story, Silence, but it lacks that Alice punch. I find it to hard to believe this is the best story she wrote in 2005.
Bohemians by George Saunders is absolutely wonderful. First good thing: the funny eastern-european accents (the main characters are, literally, World War II refugees from Czech Bohemia, living in an American slum). Second good thing: the sweet retarded neighbor character, “Eddie the Vacant”, beautifully executed. Third and best good thing: the truly heartwarming twist ending, straight outta O. Henry or a Rob Reiner movie or a Christmas special or something else corny but good like that.
Saunders’ and Munro’s pieces were both originally published in the New Yorker. J. Robert Lennon’s Eight Pieces for the Left Hand comes from Granta, and it’s even better than the Saunders piece. Lennon is kind of the “Crash Test Dummies” of the short story scene. His vignettes are neat, perfectly clipped, and totally bizarre. The eight stories that make up his piece are semi-connected by theme (people are enmeshed with each other), by style (high ironic whimsical) and by plot element (car accidents). In one of them, a guy is sick of getting his mailbox smashed by teenagers in cars, so he packs a mailbox with thirty pounds of cement, causing a death and a flurry of lawsuits that all get dismissed. Lennon does this one in four paragraphs. In another, a bunch of elementary school kids put on a play and experience deep existential disconnection when the teachers try to get them to call each other by character names instead of their real names. The kids can’t do it, and at the last minute the teachers tell the kids to just use their actual names on stage, but this just confuses the kids more and, in the end, the narrator explains that most of the children grew up to be mentally ill.
I don’t usually like two out of three stories in any Best American Short Stories, so please don’t expect future postings to be this complimentary. Let’s face it, I go to the authors I like first. There are some real snoozers down the road.