February 10, 1998
by Kay Kimbrough
PRIZE STORIES, 1997: THE O. HENRY AWARDS
Larry Dark, ed.
Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1997.
In the introduction to this collection of short stories, Larry Dark comments: "What a good short story does is open up experience exponentially. The world of fiction is bigger than the world of reality, of science, of time and space because it encompasses everything possible and a hell of a lot that isn't. As a narrative form it has journalism, history, memoir, biography, and every other nonfictional genre beat because they, at best, can only tell the truth, whereas good fiction gets at Truth with a--do I have to spell it -- capital T."
The stories in this collection achieve just that, a level of truth that is disturbing but enlightening and memorable rises from the words, the plots, the names, the places, and the atmospheres that are contained in the pages and expands into universal truths about human experience and human responses to it.
The first prize story, "City Life," by Mary Gordon, is a chilling account of flight from the past. Beatrice is a woman with a blank past of her own creation; she has erased all traces of her shabby home, her alcoholic parents, their poverty, their aimlessness, and their filth. An only child, she slept in the communal living room kitchen of their dreary house, but when she was ten she erected a wall between herself and her parents with a curtain. For the remainder of her life with them, she spent most of her time outside the house, returning only when necessary to retreat behind her barrier "where she needn't see the way they lived." After a life of self-control and focused action, she is shaken out of her clean, neat, ordered life by a neighbor in her apartment building who brings her past back to her the moment she meets him: "...in an instant she recognized him. She thought he was there to tell her the story of her life, and to tell Peter and everyone she knew...he could have lived in the house she'd been born in." All her discipline and neatness abandon her, and she reverts to the helpless child who cannot escape her parents' house, and who, this time, does not even want to. Her controlled life has become just as prison-like as her parents' home had been.
The second prize story, "The Falls," by George Saunders, is deadly serious beneath a humorous surface reflecting the thoughts of two self-centered and excuse-making adult children walking beside a river while two girls in a canoe are swiftly being carried to their certain death on the falls of the river.
Finally, both take action, one stumbling and one diving, although perhaps not soon enough.
"The Talk Between Worms," the third prize winner, by Lee K. Abbott, explores the effects of an imagined or real encounter with an alien near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, an alien the military says is a dummy.
This story also has a humorous surface, but beneath the unforgettable characters and the weird events is always the question, Who is right? Who is telling the truth? The man who encounters the alien, or thinks he encounters the alien, leaves a son to try to solve the mystery. Like Beatrice in "City Life," like most people, the narrator's job is to escape the past, his parents, and his fears.
John Barth's "On with the Story" is a story about reading a story about time in space, while the reader is moving through time and space on an airplane. The reader is going through a divorce, reviewing her life, making a story of her life, while reading a story. The man sitting next to her is a writer who pretends to be the writer of the story, actually involved in writing something else, but making a lie/story of his life for the reader of the story within the story. On with the story.
Alice Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman," is a murder mystery waiting to be solved. Like the mystery in Abbott's story, the mystery of the murder is not as central to the story as the mystery of the lives of the characters in a small Canadian town.
"The Twa Corbies" is Carolyn Cooke's expression of her understanding of "certain old man things." Two old brothers, Tad and Billy, have an encounter with each other when Tad's wife leaves for a visit to the hospital. In her absence, Billy considers murdering Tad, who is brain- damaged and who does nothing but smoke and ask for chocolate ice cream, "a plate of chocolate ice cream." His temptation probably stems from his fear that his sister-in-law has tricked him into staying with Tad while she runs away.
When she returns, he surprises her in the act of "trying to do herself in."
Cooke creates a world of speculation in this short, lively story about the despair and comedy of aging, revealing the past lives of the characters in their gestures and tastes, their efforts to maintain their dignity and their lives as they are.
Andre Dubus's "Dancing After Hours" affirms the value of life through the story of an encounter between a woman who has given up on life and is just going through the motions and a quadriplegic who inspires her to live once again.
"The Royal Palms," by Matthew Klam, features the most irritating narrator in the collection. He is a man without the least understanding of what he does to his wife and of how he appears to others while thinking very highly of himself. The joke at the end is all on him, but he is such a loser that the joke is not funny, just pathetic.
Deborah Eisenberg's "Mermaids" is reminiscent of J. D. Salinger, minus the pity or sentimentality in her characterization of young girls. The adult world depicted is not admirable, and the harm being done to the children is probably permanent, but the disrespectful daughter comments at the end, when her young sister seems to be falling apart, "Our father's asleepOur father's resting. Our father's asleep in the next room, and he doesn't want to be bothered, and plus, she's going to get over it." Father is asleep but not literally, and he does not want to be bothered.
Patricia Elam Ruff's story about a mature man and woman beginning a friendship during the last illness of the woman's husband, like "The Twa Corbies," creates whole lives out of dialogue and selected memories. "The Taxi Ride is both sad and oddly cheering, with characters who have learned some valuable lessons during hard lives.
"Demonology," by Rick Moody, is a heart-breaking memoir of a woman's short life, told by her brother. The story rushes ahead to her death in a flood of ordinary events and details, descriptions and explanations, but the sum of the total is a hymn to her life and a lament for her death.
This collection is full of Truth, universal, timeless Truth. Humor is rare, and some defy comment, but those described are unforgettable.