Ann Beattie writes in her introduction that she picked these stories "because they surprised me." Unfortunately, few surprises are to be found here, with the exception of Susan Sontag's deft "The Way We Live Now," in which an AIDS patient's persona is virtually obliterated by his well-meaning friends. Using a dizzying swirl of names to create a gossip column effect, Sontag circles her victim like a hawk and creates unexpected pathos.
Stories by several veterans to the form--John Updike, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien, Craig Nova, Joy Williams--are also included, all safe choices invariably taken from either The New Yorker or Esquire. The best of the group comes from lesser-known writers publishing in small magazines: Charles Baxter, author of the excellent novel, "First Light," offers a startling picture of newly acquainted siblings in "How I Found Me Brother" (Indiana Review); in "Private Debts/Public Holdings" (Grand Street), Kent Haruf makes a wife's abandonment and subsequent humiliation haunting yet dignified; and in Ron Carlson's "Milk" (North American Review), a father's facade of calm is tested by current events.
The humorlessness of most of these stories may be a result of the almost journalistic, nonfiction tone adopted throughout; the piling on of AIDs, Vietnam, missing children, highway accidents, and family bickering often works to the unfortunate effect of a "non-language" in which fiction is held hostage at gunpoint by the news of the day. Only in Sue Miller's "The Lover of Women" does story seem to take precedent, and even then, the language compressed into such an artless rendering of "this happened, then that happened," that the story never realizes its full power. The collection would have benefited by the addition of Laurie Colwin's witty and substantial "I've Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart to Give It Away)" or Gordon Lish's "The Convert," either of which would have broken the monotony. Each is included with those honorably mentioned.