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Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Best American Short Stories 2015

This year's Best American Short Stories anthology was guest-edited by one of my favorite short story writers, T.C. Boyle, who has had many stories appear in these collections over the years. Therefore I was surprised that I thought this one was a let-down, with hardly any stories that are like Boyle's. I guess it may be true that an artist of any type always thinks that what are other people are doing are much better than what they do.

I'd like to accentuate the positive, though, and focus on the stories I did like, which tend to be comic and with a plot that is easily followed. Therefore, my favorite story is "Unsafe at Any Speed," by Laura Lee Smith, that follows a hum-drum dental equipment salesman on an adventure that takes him to southern Florida to buy a Corvair. Along the way he has an affair with a receptionist. It's the kind of story I wish I would have written, and has great opening lines: "The day after his forty-eighth birthday was the same day Theo Bitner's seventy-five-year-old mother friended him on Facebook. It was also the same day his wife told him needed to see a doctor. Or a therapist. 'It's your mood,' she said. 'It sucks.'" And a great closing line: "But the devil was in the back seat, keeping time to the music."

Other stories I liked were Kevin Canty's "Happy Endings," in which a widowed rancher discovers the joys of a Asian massage parlor, and Ben Fowlkes' "You'll Apologize If You Have To," which has another great opening line (sometimes that's half the battle in writing a story): "Wallace went all the way to Florida to fight a Brazilian middleweight he'd never heard of for ten thousand dollars. That's what it had come to."

On the next tier I put "Jack, July," by Victor Ladata, about a homeless meth addict. There are some sentences that sing: "Soon, he knew, the freak would come, the soul-suck, if he didn't get one of two things: more crystal or a sound sleep--both of which would require money, because sleep, at this point, wouldn't be free. It would cost a bottle of grain or a six-pack or a pill. Sometimes he wondered why a person couldn't just hit himself over the head with a rock."

Two stories deal with missing or ill children. One is "Thunderstruck," by Elizabeth McCracken, which sees a family take their two daughters for a vacation in Paris but one of them has a catastrophic injury. I liked much of this story, but it kind of petered out. The part about them sight-seeing in Paris was fun, with lines like this: "In the morning they discovered that the interior walls were so thin that they could hear, just behind the headboard, the noise of M. Petit emptying his bladder as clearly and if he's been in the same room. It was a long story, the emptying of M. Petit's bladder, with many digressions and false endings."

Another child in jeopardy story is Colum McCann's "Sh'khol," which has a single mother raising an autistic child on the west coast of Ireland. It's a beautiful story, but one can't help but roll the eyes a bit when the crux of the conflict is revealed when the boy goes missing, along with his diving suit.

Other stories with a thumbs up are "About My Aunt," by Joan Silber; "Mr. Voice," by Jess Walter; and "The Big Cat," by Louise Erdrich, which has as it's central theme snoring. Stories I didn't care for were "Fingerprints," by Justin Bigos, and "The Fugue," by Arna Bontemps Hemenway, a war story that I found obtuse.

Perhaps the lesson here is that when a writer edits one of these anthologies, they are not permitted to put in any of their own stories. A story by Boyle would have gone a long way to improve it.

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