Reviewed by Vickie Fang
A Short User-Friendly Review of the Book
Anyone who doesn’t buy this 752 page book right now, should at least put it on his holiday wish list. It’s the perfect thing for whiling away the long, dark nights: 40 very substantial short stories in chronological order, each story introduced with a short biography of the author and each decade introduced by an essay on both the literature of the era and the Best American Short Stories editor who was deciding what constituted “best” in fiction. Everyone of these stories is crisply written and deeply felt. Most of them are jewels, and in this book they are jewels arrayed in a dazzling pattern that shows us the long pathway from where we have been to where we are now.
There are so many different ways in which this collection could be read, but what struck me most vividly was the evolution in the tri-cornered relationship between the author, audience, and subject. In a hundred years, we have moved from a bit of fireside gossip with a knowing family friend to a stunningly interior work in which the writer, character, and reader feel almost like the same person wandering through a darkening swamp. From Edna Ferber to Lauren Groff, in other words. Whatever your interests, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is an unusually rich collection, featuring works by great American writers, some quite famous, some newly emerging or not yet widely read. I highly recommend it.
So Excited I Couldn’t Stop Talking About it, Long-Form Review of the Book
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories begins with Ferber’s The Gay Old Dog, which was written in 1917 and tells us about a bachelor who appears to be a blissfully self indulgent man about town. Gradually we learn that he is actually an old martyr to the demands of his family making a doomed attempt to compensate for years of emotional deprivation. As Ferber explains, “The gay-dog business was a late phase in the life of Jo Hertz. He had been a quite different sort of canine. The staid and harassed brother of three unwed and selfish sisters is an under-dog.” It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story in which we are moved by our thoroughly knowledgeable narrator to see the humanity behind the stereotype. It’s written in a wonderfully fluid voice, casually indulging in what today would be edgy meta-fiction (“To condense twenty-three years of a man’s life into some five or six thousand words requires a verbal economy amounting to parsimony.”) Thus, while it is told with the brisk economy of a short story, it is narrated with the sort of smooth self assurance with which the great British novels of the 19th century were written.
By contrast, the stories of the 20s and 30s seem utterly revolutionary. Dominated by such literary masters as Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Katherine Ann Porter, and Sherwood Anderson, the work is either in first person or very close third person, and that person is generally something of an idiot — most often one who also lives out in the sticks (“we ain’t no New York City or Chicago”). The highly educated prose of Ferber gives way to a lot of “gees” and “goshes,” particularly in the twenties. While the reader understands, quite clearly, what has happened and why, the narrator often does not. In many cases, this is because the narrator is a child — a trend which has continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but seems to me to have been quite rare before that time.
Hemingway’s child narrator does reach some understanding by the end of the story, but he is no position to make use of his understanding. The last lines are, “But I don’t know. Seems like when they get started they don’t leave a guy nothing.” The reader shares in the child’s helplessness. Faulkner’s child narrator never understands anything but money, and Faulkner mercilessly refuses to grant him either innocence or understanding. Faulkner even toys with the reader’s expectation that at some point the child will awaken to the suffering of others. The boy sees men carrying his murdered uncle in the moonlight and hears that if the bundle belonged to anyone it belonged to his grandpa. The paragraph ends, “And so then I knew what it was.”
The next paragraph begins, “‘It’s a side of beef,” I said.’” The men respond with crass sarcasm, and the child is consumed with the idea of turning his grandfather’s “present” into money for himself. Nineteen years after Ferber’s confident explanation of an unappreciated man who secretly longed for rose colored sweetness, Faulkner produced a brutally unsentimental story in which he makes the actions quite clear, but resolutely refuses to give them any transcendent meaning. It must have been a stunningly modern work.
Katherine Ann Porter writes a different sort of modern story in which the interior lives of a rural couple are explored. Unlike Dreiser and James’ earlier, laboriously explained psychological novels, Porter’s story explains no more than the characters understand of their own feelings — which isn’t much. The effect is to have a far less confident understanding of them than we have of the “gay old dog” but, at the same time, to feel a far deeper connection with them.
Of the period from the 20s through the 30s, only Fitzgerald’s famous Babylon Revisited stands out as having resisted the era’s move to a blue collar or rural setting and a narrator who doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. Although the story is (brilliantly) interior, it is told with lucid explanation by an entirely trustworthy third person narrator and without a single “gee whiz.” We are invited to feel great sympathy for a wealthy and educated man, and the hero’s longing to be reunited with his loving child could almost inspire a sentimental response. Viewed with the work of other great writers of his period, it become easy to see why Fitzgerald seemed so out of step that he fell out of favor. The anthology helpfully explains, “Series editor Edward O’Brien did not select many of Fitzgerald’s short stories for The Best American Short Stories, which angered Fitzgerald, who called O’Brien ‘the world’s greatest admirer of mediocre short stories.’”
The stories of the 1940s begin to take a critical look at white, mainstream society. They Are as Brothers introduces a survivor of the concentration camps. An American woman who has left her husband thinks that “Her life was a tiny scale model of the thing that was happening in Europe . . . only miracles saved people from that spirit.” Earlier works relied on a shared and unquestioned common society. Although there are some works set in Europe, this story is the first in the collection to begin to reach out to foreigners to explain the feelings of American outcasts. Cheever’s The Enormous Radio uses fantasy as a full scale assault on white, middle class Americans. Society is starting to become as unreliable as the narrator.
Three very different and very beautiful stories are presented from the 1950s: Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing, Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, and Roth’s The Conversion of the Jews. All of them plead for inclusion of outsiders — and do so in a way that strongly suggest that the authors knew how hard it will be to make their case. There is no cozy, presumed relationship with the narrator. The narrator is the other, trying to lure the reader into his or her world. I Stand Here Ironing is written from the point of view of an impoverished and temporarily single mother. She is trying to get the rest of us to care about her fragile young adult daughter. Olsen pulls out all the stops. She explains the daughter directly, a heart to heart plea to the reader from the child’s own loving mother. She relies on the detailed and skillfully written pathos of a lonely and poverty-stricken childhood. She lets us into the anguish of not having been able to care for a child properly. She explains that the girl has at last turned out to be pretty and appealing. She is not trying to entertain and perhaps get us to think a bit as Ferber does; she is quit literally begging the reader to help a poor girl live with some dignity and self respect. One suspects that it was far more difficult to win respect for a lower class girl entering the entertainment industry in the 50s than it was to create sympathy for an older, frivolous seeming man of wealth in any time period.
With Baldwin, we finally get a story centered on Black people. Once again, the narrator is utterly reliable and is working to gain acceptance for a younger family member. Although Sonny’s Blues is about many things, the use of the first person narrator to introduce a white audience to a drug addicted Black man is especially fascinating. The speaker, Sonny’s older brother, is of course, Black, but it is easy to forget that fact as he describes the world around him. Other people have black, or brown, or copper skin. They have conked hair or cuckoo’s nest hair. His own body is never mentioned. Other people live in poverty, use drugs, hold revival meetings in their front yards. The speaker teaches high school math and only happens to live “in the projects” because they are close to his school. He describes the world around him as if he were an especially lyrical White anthropologist rather than a Black man talking about his neighborhood. As an adult he learns that his father’s younger brother was killed by drunken White men, and he is horrified in a way that suggests that he is learning about the terrible things that might happen to a Black younger brother. There is never any reference to his having been mistreated in the slightest. With tremendously effective artifice, Baldwin creates a Black man with whom his White readers can identify, even to the point of gradually believing that they too have brothers who are Black and worthy of love.
Roth uses convoluted humor, turning antisemitism on its head as he mocks religious doctrines that “prove” other religions are wrong. His main character is a child who gets smacked for challenging the Rabbi’s religious instruction. In a series of increasingly funny and then suspenseful events, the child ends up forcing all the adults around him to admit that God could create a virgin birth and then to claim that they all believe in Jesus. By the story’s conclusion, Roth has done so much to lower the defenses of his gentile audience that he can write, “You shouldn’t hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God.” People kneeling on the street promise never to do such a thing. Never once are attacks on Jews even mentioned, but the point is made. The writers of the 50s labor heroically to create a line of communication between outsiders and their mainstream audience.
The four iconic stories of the 1960s seem far less concerned about winning anyone over to the views of the outsider. They take some very divergent approaches to art, though all of them revert to the 20s and 30s tradition of the narrator who doesn’t understand much. Flannery O’Conner’s Everything that Rises Must Converge ends with its famous epiphany — and introduces the first angry and proud Black woman in the anthology. In the introduction to Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver is quoted as saying “There’s something about ‘minimalist’ that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.” These are all spare stories, and none of them are small.
Only two stories are given from the 1970s, and they are both fantasies questioning the meaning of life or the meaning of living a good life. Elkins The Conventional Wisdom was the first work I had read by the author, but I intend to read a good deal more. As with The Enormous Radio, Conventional Wisdom begins with a reliable and fairly conventional series of events and then explodes them. In thirty years, however, fiction has moved from the issue of whether we are as good as we pretend to be to the issue of what it means to be good.
Six stories are included from the 1980s, most of them in first person, none of them with particularly authoritative, “explaining” narrators. We get aging and grief from Grace Paley, child sexual abuse from Mona Simpson, alcoholism from Robert Stone, and the first work of historical fiction from David Wong Louie. Writers have the confidence to introduce Asians, raped children, the idiocentric voice of Grace Paley.
The stories from the 1990s are almost exclusively written by immigrants or foreigners. None of them uses a sympathetic family member to plead the case of the outsider; the authors seem confident that Americans are interested in the lives of Hispanics “wearing tons of cheap ass jewelry” and in young Indian women who think, “Perhaps love is different in other countries . . . where the climate is cooler, where a woman can say her husband’s name, where the power does not go out every day, where not every clerk demands a bribe. That must be a different type of love, though, where one can be careless.” The writers are aware, though, that they are writing for an audience who doesn’t share their experiences, and the stories abound with both explanations and with the vivid sensory details and the small descriptions of daily life that evoke a foreign world. The one exception is Mary Gaitskull’s The Girl on the Plane, a story of a grotesque sexual assault told from the point of view of one of the rapists. It is written with the sophistication of the 50s stories and the deliberately naive narration that was born in the 20s.
The years from 2000 to the present give us an explosion of wildly different stories, all of them rooted in very intense and generally poorly understood personal experiences. Many of them tell the story of unusual, damaged, or even sociopathic people; none of them seem to feel the need for explaining narrators or redemption. Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues worked so hard to make his Black characters acceptable. ZZ Packer begins his story about Black children with the words, “By the end of our first day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” Brownie Troop 909 is White. Packer cheerfully assumes that we’ll look forward to the ass kicking. Edward P. Jones writes an excruciatingly realistic story about the day to day life, in prison and upon release, of a Black murderer. Sherman Alexie writes from the point of view of a drunk American Indian. Saunders writes a devastating satire of American consumerist culture, and his adult narrator is as uncomprehending as Faulkner’s.
The final story in this remarkable anthology was written by Lauren Groff, whose novel, Fates and Furies, was reviewed earlier in this blog (warning to my mother, who is the only person likely to read this far into the review, Groff’s story has snakes. A lot of snakes). Groff is aptly described as writing about “the intersection of mythology and desire,” and in At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners she creates an immensely sensory evocation of life in a Florida swamp. We follow the hard and emotionally deprived life of the child who grew up there, most of our clues about his feelings coming from the information we have about the small world around him. We are engrossed by the father’s “big hand” that makes the child’s “face burn from ear to mouth” and by a young man who “scrubbed the house until it gleamed and the stench of reptiles was gone, then applied beeswax, paint, polish until it was a house fit for his mother. He waited. She didn’t come.” It is a story that goes not so much to the mind or the heart of the reader as to the pit of the stomach. The language has become so immediate that we come closer to living her hero’s life rather than trying to understand it so that if Ferber’s story follows the logical progression of an essay, Groff’s work feels more like a poem. Every single story in this anthology is well worth reading individually, and reading them all together provides a fascinating look at American fiction.