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The Best American Short Stories 1985 : edited by Gail Godwin with Shannon Ravenel (Houghton Mifflin; $14.95, hardcover; $8.95, paperback; 300 pp.)

February 09, 1986| Amy Hempel | Hempel is the author of a collection of stories, "Reasons to Live" (Knopf)

"The Best American Short Stories" is one of two annual anthologies that assemble some--and I stress some-- of the best short fiction published in American and Canadian magazines during the preceding year (the other is "Prize Stories/The O. Henry Awards"; a third, "The Editors' Choice: New American Stories, made its debut last year).

Twenty stories make the final cut; the volume is valuable, too, for its index of also-rans, formally "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories of the Year," and where to find them.

This year's guest editor, Gail Godwin, writes in her introduction to what is admittedly a subjective sampling that "the motto of this collection might well be: 'Tell me something I need to know--about art, about the world, about human behavior, about myself.' "

Some of these stories tell us things we already know. Some tell us things we may not want to know. In "Emperor of the Air," Ethan Canin writes, "I felt my life open up and present itself to me." The stories that open up and present themselves have a sense of urgency--somebody's heart is on the line. Canin conveys this quietly, but effectively. His narrator is a 69-year-old man who is moved to defend an infested elm against a neighbor who would have it cut down. Canin makes us feel what he feels, using what is known as "deceptively simple" prose.

Canin's story originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, as did two other "Bests"--"Lily," by Jane Smiley, and Peter Meinke's "The Piano Tuner." Meinke's story is a decreasingly comic vision of paranoia borne out in the menacing person of a coarse intruder who arrives to tune a piano and stays to bully its owner.

More than half of these stories come from literary magazines. Two of the freshest, Beth Nugent's "City of Boys" and "The Johnstown Polka" by Sharon Sheehe Stark, were culled from The Northwest Review and West Branch, respectively.

"City of Boys," also included in this year's "Editor's Choice," concerns a young woman who strays from her female lover to see what the story is with boys. Her lover is everything to her, she says, " . . . everything but a boy." Her single-sightedness makes boys exotic. "I see what they do all day, but still I want them." She allows herself to be picked up by a carload of boys, then returns to her female lover, the one who had promised, "if you leave me you will spend all your time coming back to me."

In "The Johnstown Polka," a woman who has lost her husband and daughters in a flood feels herself a ghost, "haunting her own life." Now remarried, with two new daughters, Francine describes her heart as "a slack muscle, as if after having delivered an outsize grief, it never quite snapped back and stubbornly holds, if not sorrow itself, then the soft shape of it."

At a nursing home Francine visits with her singing group, she meets the Oldest Living Survivor (of the 1899 Flood). She takes her home overnight as though checking out a book from the library. She looks to the ornery old woman for a clue of her own survival. Stark has a good eye, and the ability to put the reader right there.

Another stand-out is Norman Rush's "Instruments of Seduction," a sophisticated tale set in Africa that features a jolting story within the story. There are also well-made stories by John L'Heureux, Deborah Seabrooke and Joy Williams.

On the downside, the biggest names have the weakest entries here. E. L. Doctorow's "The Leather Man," Joyce Carol Oates' "Raven's Wing"--are these stories going to make a difference in your life? I bet not.

And Russell Banks, author of "Trailerpark" and "Continental Drift," contributes "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story." The only love evident here is self-love as a supremely handsome and unlikable man (he likes himself enough for the rest of us combined) recalls a love affair he had with an ugly woman--"her ugly face, like a wart hog's . . . her dumpy, off-center wreck of a body . . . " The conceit here is deeply offensive: " . . . he begins to ask questions of her, he buys her a drink, he smiles, until soon it seems, even to him, that he is taking her and her life . . . quite seriously."

Imagine--taking a homely woman seriously! This is not to say that a good story couldn't exploit this premise, and surpass it. But this one does not, partly because of the narrator's fabulous opinion of himself.

There are a couple of other baffling selections in "The Best American Short Stories 1985," but as Gail Godwin says up front, "Sic enim mihi placuit."

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