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O. Henry Awards: A Premium on Brevity : PRIZE STORIES 1990 The O. Henry Awards edited by William Abrahams (Doubleday; $19.95; 448 pp; 0-385-26498-4)

April 29, 1990|Andre Dubus III | Dubus is the author of "The Cage Keeper and Other Stories" (E.P. Dutton/Plume Contemporary Fiction). and

"Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards" celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with this month's publication of 20 new short stories chosen by William Abrahams. Abrahams, a senior editor at E. P. Dutton and award-winning co-biographer of George Orwell, has served as editor of the anthology since 1967. With his selection of this year's winners, he confirms that his tastes in fiction are truly eclectic, an editorial propensity that enriches us all.

The O. Henry first prize goes, deservedly, to Leo E. Litwak for his story "The Eleventh Edition." The protagonist here is young Russell Hansen, a poor boy from Iron Mountain, Mich., who strikes out on his own, away from his "bitter and alcoholic" father, ending up at Wayne University in Detroit. He finds this to be a most comfortable home, and for three years he studies with a Professor Diekman before entering the graduate program, enrolling in whatever courses Diekman teaches. Litwak writes with the sort of clarity that lends lyricism to his prose:

"Professor Diekman was a bent little man. He was slightly twisted to the right, as if he were lecturing on the run, hurling words back at his pursuers.

"We learned about Guelphs, Ghibellines, Dante, Machiavelli, the painters, the sculptors, the craftsmen, the poets, the guilds.

"He operated in great swoops. He lighted on a detail, developed it, then leapt elsewhere. . . . There was nothing so odd that he couldn't find a link to our experience. He clarified what was opaque, made coherent what seemed alien and terrifying."

Hansen lives in a boarding house. In the next room over is elderly Frank Walsh, a man whose present-day memory is quickly vanishing but who can recollect 50 years past with ease. There is a tragicomic exchange where Walsh knocks on Hansen's door on several occasions to introduce himself, forgetting that the two have long since met.

This sort of neighbor proves distracting for young Russ, now earnestly aspiring to an academic career in philosophy under Diekman's tutelage. As Hansen works himself into the professor's inner circle of favored students, old Walsh's condition worsens to an alarming degree, and here Litwak presents us with the central theme of the story: Can the good professor's cerebral life "make coherent" an all too-real and visceral death?

Litwak illuminates this question with true light of his own.

One of the strengths of this anthology lies in exposing its readers not only to established writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Mathiessen and Alice Adams but also to emerging writers as well. Two of the finest stories here are the first published works by young authors Marilyn Sides and Devon Jersild.

In Sides' story, "The Island of the Map Maker's Wife," we encounter C. M. Descotes, "a rather young woman" who owns and runs a shop that specializes in the trading of antique picture maps. On a tip from William, an older ex-lover and fellow map expert, Descotes flies out to Amsterdam to acquire some very high-quality merchandise. What she finds there surpasses all her expectations:

"The work could only have been done by the greatest illuminator of maps in the 17th Century, Margarethe Blau, the wife of the master printer Theodor Blau. The long spine of the Andes Frau Blau has rendered in the finest golden tincture of myrrh with the western slope reflecting the setting sun in a delicate pink wash of cochineal. Several stands of trees, in a thousand varying shades of green, play the vast rain forest of Brazil. Rivers have been threaded through the continent in indigo banded with magenta. The southern pampas wave their bluish leaves and the golden stalks. Red lead, the color of dried blood, shadows the double cathedral towers of Spanish settlements. Surrounding the land, showing off its gentle brightness, the sea is stippled like shot silk in dark indigo and a wash of lighter-blue bice."

On closer inspection, Descotes notices an enticing flaw in this otherwise perfect map the dealer does not wish to sell. She must have it. In her attempts to acquire it, we witness some of the most passionate writing in the book. This is a finely wrought story, a tale that concludes with vivid and exotic heat.

Devon Jersild's story "In Which John Imagines His Mind as a Pond" is another sensual beauty detailing the libidinal struggle of John, a happily married man in love with another woman. John turns to meditation to aid him in letting go his desire.

Jersild's language is cool and spare, her details muted, a style that serves her heart-thumping main character well, taking him, and us, to an ending that unfolds itself naturally, with a deliberate and excusable echo of James Joyce's "The Dead."

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