Here’s the second and final installment of my Best American Short Stories of 2005 review. I finished about two-thirds of the stories (I said I read Houghton Mifflin’s BASS book every year, but I didn’t say I finish it). Here are my findings:
First of all, the 2005 collection is much better than average. I do heartily recommend that you buy it (especially since it only costs $14, miraculously, a fair price). I don’t know how useful it is to consider a collection of stories as a whole — clearly, the story and not the collection is the critical unit here — but I will say that Michael Chabon’s collection is a lot better than Lorrie Moore’s from last year (even though I’ve always liked her better as a writer). Chabon deserves a lot of credit for putting together this package.
Suburban novelist Tom Perrotta’s The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face is a funny-serious little-league baseball tale narrated by a morally decrepit father who hates himself so deeply that the reader doesn’t have to. Perrotta’s plot ricochets around like a crazy grounder on a pebbly field, and when nobody’s looking the author slides into home plate with a great ending. A story to remember.
Props to a former teacher of mine, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for her quiet exhibit of controlled anxiety and aggravation, A Taste of Dust. This is a bitter-toned first person narrative in which two middle-aged but perky divorced parents “meet friendly” for dinner to make the kids happy (and to satiate their own curiousity about what might have been). I didn’t like Lynne Sharon Schwartz as a teacher (in fact I wrote about the fiasco here; she’s the writer who looks like Joyce Carol Oates but isn’t Joyce Carol Oates). But let’s put the Joyce Carol Oates lookalike jokes aside here, because Schwartz’s story is razor-sharp and beautifully constructed, and reminds me why I once sought her out as a teacher in the first place.
Yeah, I’m gonna keep praising these short stories. You got a problem with that? Rishi Reddi’s Justice Shiva Ram Murthy is a quirky fable about two Americanized Hindus in Boston. One of them orders a bean burrito at a cheap Mexican joint and is served a beef burrito instead. He’s enraged and seeks legal retribution, and that’s all the plot this surprising comedy of manners needs.
I could recuse myself from reviewing Cory Doctorow’s Anda’s Game, since Doctorow is one of three judges for this year’s Blooker Prize, which LitKicks hopes to win. But, what the hell, nobody really cares. (My virtual entanglement with Doctorow, who I’ve never met, also includes a curious incident involving identical book covers. Please note that the Levi Asher/Christian Crumlish book came out first, though it unfortunately went out of print first too).
Doctorow’s story is probably the hippest in the book, the one most likely to have been republished by Dave Eggers if Michael Chabon hadn’t grabbed it first. It’s about a shy pre-adolescent girl with great skills at a particular video game who gets roped into an apparently global scheme to barter game points for cash. As a non-gamer myself (I think the last video game I mastered was Centipede, and then I ran out of quarters) I really enjoyed the chance to understand what the world feels and sounds like (Tom Wolfe style, although Doctorow has a calmer approach) to an obsessive game freak. I was so engaged in the first half of the story, though, that I was disappointed when the avatars emerged into reality to interact with various shady government-sponsored or exploitative-capitalist organizations that apparently thrive in gameland along with the innocent young players. It was really two stories in one, but I wish the second one had been as vivid as the first.
Will the praise never end? There’s more. David Means has a lot of nerve appropriating the title of J. D. Salinger’s made-up story (Holden Caulfield’s phony brother was the author) for his own Secret Goldfish. Luckily, he pulls it off. It’s another divorce story, a nice complement to Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s above, with a slightly grotesque but symbolic domestic fish bearing the emotional weight of the confused family that surrounds it.
Speaking of Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Cousins represents the quieter, darker side of this collection. It’s an epistolatory tale about two elderly woman who don’t know each other. One is a famous and angry writer who survived the Holocaust; the other is a placid and lonely humble lady who believes the famous writer is her cousin. Oates knows what to do with a great setup like this, and she does all that and more. It’s a powerful, serious story; Joyce Carol Oates in a Cynthia Ozick mood.
I finished three more stories, all of which involve prisons, and none of which I am going to rave about. Dennis Lehane’s Until Gwen, Thomas McGuane’s Old Friends and Edward P. Jones’ Old Boys, Old Girls all try too hard to be bad-ass, and Styles P said it better in a song called “Locked Up” that got played a lot on hiphop radio in 2005: “The walls is gray, the clothes is orange, the phones are broke, the food is garbage” There, we just saved a lot of words.
Finally, there are several stories whose first sentences didn’t drag me in, but I didn’t read them so I don’t know if they got better or not.