Best American Short Stories
Series: Best American
Paperback: 416 pages
Edited by: Heidi Pitlor and T. C. Doyle
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
It was an easy bet that we’d be a big fan of this issue of Best American Short Stories: we’ve already reviewed three of its twenty stories in this blog, and would have reviewed a fourth if it hadn’t been published more than a month before the blog began. It’s especially exciting to see that a short story which was anthologized in Choose Wisely, published by a very small publisher, Upper Rubber Boots, was included in this prestigious collection (Diane Cook’s Moving On). The sixteen stories that were new to me were just as beautiful as the familiar ones, a delight to read and a treasure trove of new authors to explore. The collection itself is appropriately diverse. Its settings ranged from a train in the lonely scrubland just beyond the Indian border to a Manhattan ad agency, and its writing styles encompassed everything from straight forward, old fashioned story telling to Bride, a work so drenched with sensations that it felt more like a prose poem. Two themes did emerge, however. The first was an exploration of senses that are so intense and, for the characters, so often disorientating, that it made me think of the work of the 19th century French poet, Rimbaud, who struggled to break down the borders of physical experience so he could create a kind of delirious synesthesia. The second, very different theme is an examination of family, especially the family that adults work to create when life has not turned out as they had expected.
The above-mentioned Bride, originally published in Conjunctions, is the most stunning example of that sensory delirium. It concerns a young, medieval nun who tortures her flesh to achieve religious ecstasy.
Wilda’s body is a bundle of polluted flesh. Her body is a stinking goat. She lashes her shoulders and back. She scourges her arms, her legs, her shrunken breasts, and jutting rib cage. . . She chastises the filthy maggot of her carnality until she feels fire crackling up her backbone. Her head explodes with light. Her soul rejoices like a bird flitting from a dark hut, out into summer air.
Not even her self flagellation is enough to safeguard against the dangers of carnality, not when women “are ripe for the Devil’s attention” with “tainted flesh” that “lures the Devil like a spicy, rancid bait.” The abbot warns the women of the evil one. “He mimics the sound of Satan’s dung-caked hooves clomping over cobblestones. He asks the nuns to picture the naked beast: face of a handsome man of thirty, swarthy skinned, raven haired, goat horns poking from his brow.”
For the starving nuns, however, temptation can come in the form of a forbidden cache of food. Two of the young women break into the dead Abbess’s secret supply.
(The pickled herring) taste fresh, briny, tinged with lemon. Something awakens in Wilda, a tiny sea monster in her stomach . . . Wilda is starving. She gnaws at a twisted strand of venison, tasting forests in the salty meat, the deer shot by a nobleman’s arrow, strips roasted over open flame. When Aoife opens a pot of strawberry preserves, she moans as sweetness fills the room, a kind of sorcery, the essence of a sun-warmed berry field trapped in a tiny crock. “Hallelujah!” she whispers.
Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s The Fugue is about an Iraqi war veteran whose seizures, PTSD, and years of bizarre experiences leave him wandering in a fugue state, vividly recalling his past in confused fragments. He thinks of his second grade teacher and remembers:
(T)he rank, slightly fetid scent that would occasionally waft subtly from somewhere inside her gingham dress on a tendril of air in the last weeks of school before summer. The scent or smell itself wasn’t subtle at all but sharp, rich, pungent, even vaguely sweet, like the smell of human shit anywhere outside a bathroom. Nor was it really a smell so much as an emanation, or at least that’s how it’d seemed to Wild Turkey, sitting on the carpet in the middle of the room, transfixed by this sensate experience delivered to him on the wavering bough of the window fan’s breezes.
While I’ve quoted at length from just these two stories, there are many other striking passages throughout the collection: a man listening to women whose snores sound like machinery or ravenous beasts as he realizes what his marriage has cost him; another man, dazed, drunk, listening to an ex-wife on the phone as she enumerates the ways he has harmed her, and wondering, as he apologizes, which ex-wife he’s talking to; a boy high on crystal meth (The sadness bloomed in his belly. It always started there — a radioactive flower, chaotic, spinning out in weird fractals until it found its way to his arms and legs, his quivering lips. Then the telltale buzz of electricity in his hair.) There is actual electricity as young people hold hands and deliberately touch an electrified fence on a summer evening. It seems so much easier than trying to sort out their confusing feelings. There’s the boxer who knows, by the way the gym smells rancid to him now, that his fighting days are coming to a close. A brain damaged child disappears, then reappears from the sea, while the father of another such child confuses his own ability to paint with his daughter’s limp hand on his brush. Even a healthy child’s inevitable growing up and going away is felt from the moment of her birth, like the lifting of a hot air balloon.
In the midst of the many glorious sights, sounds, smells, and painful or thrilling touches in this book are men and women who struggle to build a life despite their lost or failed families. For some, that means accepting that the family they wanted no longer exists, or perhaps never has, and giving in to irresponsible, liberating sensation. In Happy Endings, a widowed rancher who had spent his entire life doing what was expected of him discovers the happy ending that a massage parlor offers. Afterwards, “He lay back on the hood of his truck and closed his eyes and felt the sunlight pouring down on his skin, another gift in a world of gifts. Somebody might come by, Lydia Tennant or LaFrance or any of the Christian Singles. Somebody might see him. It didn’t matter. His life was about to change.” For the rancher, sensation is not so much delirium as it is revelation. For a salesman in an unhappy marriage, an adulterous bender is equally powerful, though far less promising. “My God! She was ravenous, greedy, downright riotous. He had no idea such behavior even existed, and he was both appalled and awestruck. He felt a deep recalibration of values.”
Many of the stories, however, are about people trying to form a new family. An aging gay man clings to his housekeeper when his old dog dies. The foolish-seeming stepfather in Mr. Voice quietly rescues a vulnerable girl, creating for her the security she would never know with her mother. An aging, hippy aunt does her best to nudge her niece in a more promising direction. “She knew a lot. She was waiting for me to make some fucking effort to know a fraction as much . . . we were having a long and unavoidable moment, my aunt and I, of each feeling sorry for the other. In our separate ways. How could we not?” The insight of the first person narrator suggests that the aunt eventually got her wish. One of my favorite stories in the collection, Kavitha and Mustafa, is an entirely unsentimental account of a childless woman and a young boy who work together to survive a desperate situation. They lose their old families; they create a new one together. It’s much less than they would have wanted for themselves, but it’s much more than they would have had if they had not been so resolute. This is a book about a world of powerful sensations, of lost connections, and the touching, admirable attempts to forge new ones. It’s an exciting read.