This year's O. Henry Awards volume marks a significant anniversary. Editor William Abrahams notes in his introduction that this is the 20th consecutive volume he's edited since 1967. Those years correspond with an amazing renaissance in the short story--a form, like jazz, that Americans have had a large hand in shaping. Abrahams' consistently dedicated work with the O. Henry selections has certainly helped develop and sustain that renaissance.
This year's collection leads off with two First Prize stories--Louise Erdrich's "Fleur" and Joyce Johnson's "The Children's Wing." The richness and mastery evident in each of these stories provides graphic indication of the difficulty of making these choices, not only for the awards, but for inclusion in the volume. Everybody would, if given the chance, make different selections, but these two stories are eminently worthy.
Erdrich's "Fleur" is an unforgettable spellbinder, combining exact, graphic details of culture (Chippewa), locale (North Dakota in the '20s), and hot, driving plot (the coming of a deserved, asked for retribution) in one story. Fleur Pillager is a complete creation, a young woman of immense physical strength yet sinuous appeal, a savvy poker player, and maybe a witch. Erdrich (her most recent novel, "The Beet Queen," is set in the same North Dakota area) is one of our brightest literary stars: "Fleur" is a good introduction to her marvelous work.
While Erdrich's story swiftly takes us to the realms of the fantastic, Johnson's "The Children's Wing" is a Chekhovian story set in New York among urban detritus, in hospital room, where a mother must endure watching her young son growing old too soon. In its compassionate understatement of the difficulties of a single mother in a large city, it forms a perfect companion to the wild, wide-open landscape magic of Erdrich's story.
There are 18 other stories in this year's volume, almost evenly balanced between stories by men and by women. The range of voices, styles, themes and locales is wonderfully varied--settings from Tennessee to California to upstate Michigan to a Mediterranean island; characters ranging from a young black New York cop to a Minnesota professor of marine biology to a runner struck by lightning.
Stuart Dybek's "Blight" is representative, a memoir of Chicago and a group of raucous teens in the '50s. It's one of the best here, a story full of wisecrackers and wistful reminiscences of a time that now appears almost unbelievably innocent. You have to read a story that begins, "During those years between Korea and Vietnam, when rock and roll was being perfected, our neighborhood was proclaimed an official Blight area."
Continuing a tradition of the series, Abrahams features the work of several promising newcomers: a fascinating story of a young girl and her grandfather by Helen Norris, "The Singing Well"; a haunting Vietnam story, "The Village," by Jim Pitzen; and the longest story in the collection, Robert Boswell's biblical "The Darkness of Love."
The work of acknowledged masters is here, too. "Basil From Her Garden" is vintage Donald Barthelme. Grace Paley contributes a dazzling short-short story, "Midrash on Happiness." Alice Adams' "Tide Pools" is a classic California story. And, yes, there is a Joyce Carol Oates story, "Ancient Airs, Voices."
My personal favorites in this collection would be Robert Taylor Jr.'s "Lady of Spain," set in Oklahoma, a poignant story of the costs of betrayal and abandonment of dreams, and Gina Berriault's beautifully understated, and thus all the more powerful story, "The Island of Ven," set on the small island in the Baltic Sea where Tycho Brahe had his astronomy observatory.
Trends can sometimes be detected in major anthologies; here a shift to the once proscribed first-person story is quite evident. Abrahams suggests in his introduction that the truthfulness of this type of story "exerts a powerful appeal, now especially when we are being subjected to a tyranny of facts at every level of our lives, cunningly or blatantly manipulated to keep us from the truth."
For good or for bad, it is also evident that an ever-increasing number of writers--at least those getting their work published--are employed full time teaching writing in colleges and universities. This is the literary sinecure of our times; what it means to have increasingly few writers who actually make their living writing--how that affects the edge in their life and thus in their work--is a moot question.
Perhaps the best proof of a collection's potency and validity is that its stories make a writer want to write. There isn't one here that doesn't do that. Whatever choices or exclusions one would make, and whatever differences of taste might be put forth, this vigorous collection makes it indisputably clear that the short story is alive, well and living in America.