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Entries in short stories (31)


The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018 by Laura Furman (ed.)

Published by Vintage Anchor on September 4, 2018

None of the stories in the 2018 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories resemble an O. Henry story. Fewer than half impressed me as worthy of being anthologized. I suppose my taste differs from the editor and jurors who selected the stories. The editor made an attempt to be diverse and inclusive, but the stories are determinedly literary (I suppose because they are chosen from literary magazines) and most are rather bland.

Some of the best stories in this collection are told from the perspective of a child. In “Lucky Dragon,” Viet Dinh describes the radiation poisoning of a boat filled with fishermen after Americans test an atomic bomb on the Bikini Atoll. The story is an effective indictment of inhumanity because it focuses not on massive destruction, but on the very personal effects of a single explosion upon a former POW who has been destroyed by war (and by Japanese traditions of honor) in many ways.

“Nights in Logar” by Jamil Jan Kochai is told by a child who has moved to Afghanistan from America. In the company of friends, he searches for a missing dog, exacts a form of cultural retribution on a young man he doesn’t know, and gets a lesson in village history as he roams past landmarks of local and international conflict. While the story is a brief slice-of-life, it reveals more than the moment it captures.

Another story told from a child’s perspective, Mark Jude Poirer’s “How We Eat,” is a very funny look at the mother from hell. The story suggests that even bad parenting might be insufficient to muffle a child’s essential goodness.

The young girl who narrates Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” recounts her relationship with her overbearing grandmother during the four occasions that the grandmother visits America. The story is funny (because the girl, in her teen years, becomes just as overbearing as the grandmother) while offering a sensitive portrayal of an aging woman who is trying to find ways to deal with her fears.

On the other hand, not every story that reveals the world from a child’s viewpoint succeeded in saying something worthwhile. “Inversion of Marcia” by Thomas Bolt, a story written from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl on vacation in Italy, would probably be of greater interest to 14-year-old girls than it was to me. A friend of the mother of the young girl who narrates Lara Vapnyar’s “Deaf and Blind” is having an affair with a deaf and blind lover in Moscow. The story is well written and I guess it tries to say something about love, but I’m not sure it says anything at all.

My favorite story, “Queen Elizabeth” by Brad Felver, distills the relationship between a math professor and a furniture maker and their lost child to its essence in a series of defining moments. The story draws its power from its sparseness.

The saddest story, “Up Here” by Tristan Hughes, is about a relationship and a decision to end an old dog’s life. The story’s ending, together with carefully planted facts as the story unfolds, implies an additional reason for the narrator’s sadness. I like the way the story says so much by leaving so much untold.

A woman in (I think) Paraguay writes letters for pay by channeling the spirit of the letter’s dead author. The story suggests that the spirits of people who are tortured by authoritarian governments continue to suffer after the body dies. The narrator of Stephanie A. Vega’s “We Keep Them Anyway” has enough pain of her own and doesn’t want to know about the pain of the dead — perhaps with good cause, when the oppressors come searching for the incriminating letters.

The rest of the stories are of lesser quality. Youmna Chlala’s “Nayla” is a slice in the lives of two young women dealing with loss in ways that their culture permits. Another slice of life, Michael Parker’s “Stop ‘n’ Go,” introduces a man who reflects on how life has changed since the war. Ann Enright’s “Solstice” focuses on an Irish man’s frustration with his inability to shield his family from his grief and detachment. All three slices are too small to allow the reader to know the characters, but they at least convey something meaningful.

Marjorie Celona’s “Counterblast” features a woman who is filled with complaints about her husband, even after divorcing him, and with self-satisfied memories about how much she loved her baby, followed by a litany of complaints about how hard it is to be a mother. The protagonist is so full of anxieties and woes that I wanted to shout “Get over yourself!” Dounia Choukri’s “Past Perfect Continuous” is told by a woman who remembers her bitter German aunt whose past was stolen from her. The story is big on bromides but short on insights.

Lauren Alwan’s “An Amount of Discretion” is about a woman who wants to bond with her stepson after her husband’s death while making a decision about the disposition of the art her husband made. The stepson has a free-spirited stepdaughter. The story invites, but does not answer, the question: “Why are you making such as big deal out of this?”

“The Stamp Collector” by Dave King is about a self-pitying alcoholic who visits his former boyfriend in the hospital after the ex-boyfriend’s alcoholic mother crashes a car. This is another story that’s well-written but not very interesting, perhaps because I’ve had my fill of stories about self-pitying drunks.

Jo Lloyd's “The Earth, thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies” is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy that I guess is supposed to be an indictment of capitalism. The title seems to come from a poem by Thomas Yalden that is dedicated to the explorer Humphry Mackworth, which is a little more research into the obscure than I think I should need to do to figure out the meaning of a mediocre story.

Stories that struck me as pointless and/or senseless: “The Tomb of Wrestling” by Jo Ann Beard; “The Houses that Are Left Behind” by Brenda Walker; and “More or Less Like a Man” by Michael Powers.



The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons

Published by Little, Brown and Co. on July 17, 2018

The Wrong Heaven is a remarkable collection of stories. In their offbeat nature and humorous takes on serious issues, the stories compare favorably to those of George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem. Amy Bonnaffons demonstrates her versatility by including a couple of stories that have a more serious tone.

In “The Wrong Heaven,” a teacher, wondering whether Jesus is on her side (the evidence suggests not) buys lawn ornaments of Jesus and Mary, plugs them in, and has a conversation. She unplugs them because she finds them to be too judgmental, but lights them up intermittently as the story proceeds. The best part of the story involves a dog who loves listening to Billie Holliday before taking a nap. The story’s moral is that, like charred marshmallows, there’s always another layer underneath, but I still like the story for the brief appearance of the canine jazz fan.

The woman in “The Other One” visits a karaoke place to sing “Hand in My Pocket” over and over, hoping to get it out of her head. The song has been plaguing her ever since she began to doubt the self-serving choices she had made about how to live her life. She hopes to purge the song, or at least to understand how her own conflicted feelings are reflected in the song’s lyrics, by making the song her own. The story is quite funny but it makes a serious point about how the mind deals with stress in ways that we don’t always understand, or tries to tell us things that we need to know.

“Horse” is the story of a woman who takes injections that turn her into a horse, but the larger theme is the longing that some women feel to live an entirely different kind of life, perhaps the kind of wild and powerful life that an unbroken horse represents. To make sure readers understand the point, the woman describes her transformation as “a cautionary tale” of “what happens when you ignore your own wildness for too long.” The woman’s transformation is juxtaposed against her roommate’s transition to motherhood. What they have in common is hope that their changed lives will be better and fear that there’s no turning back if their new lives are not what they expect.

In “Black Stones,” a dying woman explains to the angel of death the problems she has had being “the other woman.” Like all men, the angel of death has conflicting desires and isn’t good at understanding women.

The wannabe grad student who provides day care for two kids known as “The Two Cleas” sees the postmodernist irony that the people she encounters bring to their performances of life. But how will her postmodernist observations affect her own post-feminist performance of life? Will she decide that living is better than performing, or is performance and being amused by the performance of others ingrained in modern intellectual life?

The narrator of “A Room to Live In” carves two small children from balsa wood and they come to life, making her a God to the kids but not a great wife to her husband. I think the story is an allegory for parenthood. Whatever it is meant to be, the story is funny and sweet.

The characters in “Alternate” try to apply Obama’s promise of hope for the future to their own lives, only to discover that they cannot escape from the present. The narrator’s only plan is to decorate a blank wall in a way that will persuade her lover to come back. The story blends the difficulty of political and personal change in a way that is both funny and insightful.

“Goddess Night” pokes fun at women who take themselves and their worldviews much too seriously. It’s one of a couple of stories that explore sexual alternatives from the amusing perspective of a woman who considers herself clueless about what those alternatives might be. I like the advice the protagonist receives: “Just follow your desires, and you’ll live into the answers.” And I like the protagonist’s realization that women are both goddesses and mortals, “always already dying, always yet to be fully born.”

Only a couple of stories are not primarily the stuff of comedy. “Doris and Katie” is a touching story about friendship, relationships, aging, reactions to traumatic news, and the inevitability of everything coming to an end.

The most poignant story (and my favorite in the collection), “Little Sister,” is narrated by a young girl who isn’t so young by the story’s end. She copes with a dysfunctional broken family by creating a not-quite-imaginary little sister who lives under her bed, unless she’s been buried in the ground or beneath the floorboards. The story is about the ways people find to protect themselves from harm, or at least to protect an untouched image of themselves that will survive the harsh reality of life.

There isn’t a bad story in the collection, and I suspect that most readers will find one or two to be memorable. I’ve never encountered Amy Bonnaffons’ work before, but I hope to encounter her again and again.



Night Hawks by Charles Johnson

Published by Scribner on May 1, 2018

Many of the stories in Night Hawks address questions of religion or philosophy. Toshiro Ogami, the “imitation priest” in “Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra,” left the monastery because he did not have the political or family connections needed to rise in his religion. He translates English books into Japanese while rehabilitating an old, abandoned temple. An African American woman whose book he is translating finds him there. Quite inadvertently, she helps him overcome his self-doubt and find the harmonious unity that has always eluded him.

“Idols of the Cave” is told in the second person, putting the reader in the shoes of a Muslim American soldier who is being court martialed after tumbling into a cave in Afghanistan that had once been occupied by Buddhist monks. A treasure trove of ancient wisdom sparks a discussion between the Muslim soldier and a Christian major and an outcome that Aristotle might categorize as either comedy or tragedy — the court martialed soldier does not know which characterization would be more accurate.

“The Weave” describes the theft of wigs and extensions made from human hair from a salon by a former employee who believes she was unjustly fired for burning a customer. The hair comes from the heads of Buddhist women who are shorn in order to let go of all things cosmetic. The story, narrated by the thief’s boyfriend, is about letting go of the things that turned the former salon employee into a thief, including her pain and “the absurdities of color and caste.”

A student of Socrates, presumably Plato, narrates “The Cynic.” He laments the condition of postwar Athens, the prevalence of people who aspire to power rather than good, who learn from sophists how to disguise truth and perfection, and at the same time challenges the wisdom of Socrates, Aristotle, and particularly Diogenes, who forces Plato to consider the possibility that it is more important to be than to understand.

Other stories are closer to home, but are still informed by philosophy, particularly by Buddhist thought. A Seattle cab driver in “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” ruminating about the unfair divide between the 1% and the rest of us, burglarizes the home of a wealthy man, only to learn that the differences between the rich and poor are often less significant that the suffering that all human beings share. A similar lesson is learned in “Welcome to Westwood,” when the narrator, irritated by the loud music played by a neighbor, learns to replace his irritation with compassion.

“The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones” is a fictionalized account of the narrator’s encounter with a real-life black man in Seattle who gained some fame by dressing as a superhero and fighting (or, as the police viewed it, committing) crimes. The point of the story is that people have the power to invent themselves, perhaps the most important superpower of all.

Another real-life African American, the playwright August Wilson, is the subject of “Night Hawks,” a story written as a wide-ranging conversation that touches on the soul of the artist, the difference between tough exteriors and sensitive interiors, “the ambiguous state of black America,” and the tragedy of art that never reaches the audience that most needs to see it. Reality intrudes on intellectualism when the two men observe the night hawks who roost at an IHOP at 3 a.m., a juxtaposition that suggests the importance of art as a refuge from the violence and suffering that surrounds us all.

The remaining inhabitants of Earth in “4189” are immortal, but some of them use a forbidden drug that helps them imagine they might die, which is essential to appreciating a moment of time. But death, the only forbidden fruit, becomes the only taste that Shane and his lover crave. This story is about a society that subordinates individuality for the collective good. With its surprise ending, this is one of the best science fiction short stories I’ve read this year.

A song that contains a map to freedom for runaway slaves is at the center of “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” On the silly side, “Guinea Pig” describes an experiment in which a student briefly inhabits the mind of the researcher’s dog.

All of Charles Johnson’s stories are carefully polished gems. This collection demonstrates Johnson’s versatility, blending philosophy with the reality of modern street life. It is the product of a warm, generous, and thoughtful mind, the kind of enriching fiction that offers a chance to take a break and feel grateful for life and for artists who help us understand the possibilities it offers.



Bring Out the Dog by Will Mackin

Published by Random House on March 6, 2018

Bring Out the Dog is an uneven collection of war stories told by the same narrator and generally featuring the same characters. Some stories take place while the combatants are training; others take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. My impression is that Will Mackin followed the model of other war writers without reflecting deeply on his own experiences, or at least without translating that reflection into soul-searching fiction.

It is a staple of war fiction that fighters in the field believe they know more than commanders who occupy desks. When Mackin writes, “As Seal Team Six . . . [o]ur ideas about the war were the war,” his narrator’s hubris reflects a common mindset in war fiction. The best war stories, as exemplified by The Things They Carried, explore the strengths and weaknesses of combatants and the horror of war without being self-aggrandizing. Macen occasionally reaches that pinnacle, but many of the stories in Bring Out the Dog fall short. Too many strained similes (“Static poured out of its speaker like sugar”) come across as ill-advised attempts to be literary. At his best, Mackin tells his stories in a natural voice. At his worst, he’s pretentious.

The best story, “The Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night,” is about a dog’s funeral, but it is also about two enduring themes of war fiction: fear and futility. Another story that gains strength from its honesty, “Rib Night,” talks about soldiers who become addicted to sleeping pills so they can forget about the people they killed. One soldier in particular makes a point of being a testosterone-driven asshole who clearly joined the service so that he could kill people. He takes the pills for fun and doesn’t seem interested in forgetting the deaths he caused.

One of the better stories isn’t really a war story at all, although it might explain something about the mindset that drives men to volunteer for combat. “Baker’s Strong Point” deals with the narrator’s friend, who hangs out with a stripper when he and the narrator aren’t practicing their skills in the Utah desert. The stripper’s unfortunate boyfriend has an encounter with the soldier and his baseball bat when he wonders whether the stripper might be cheating on him.

Many of Mackin’s themes are common in war fiction, including the boredom that combatants share when they aren’t in combat. “The Lost Troop” is about the things a bored soldier imagines (the war is over and nobody told them, an asteroid is about to wipe out all life on the planet) before he and his troop find a spot to scatter the ashes of a soldier who died. To cope with boredom, the troop pays a visit to their interpreter’s mean grade school teacher and recites the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, an act that hardly seems destined to win the hearts and minds of Afghanis. The story is probably the most creative effort in the collection.

On the other hand, boredom is never something that a writer should inflict on a reader. “Welcome Man Will Never Fly” starts out with a former pilot and current Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) who is training a SEAL to be a JTAC, a job the SEAL is clearly incapable of learning. If the story has a point, I missed it. I finished “Kattekoppen,” about a rescue mission for kidnapped soldiers that focuses on whether a Dutch soldier will “fit in,” with a similar sense that I had read a collection of events and thoughts in search of a unifying purpose.

Other stories that didn’t do much for me essentially focused on the rituals of combat without providing any unusual insight into the characters’ lives or the lives of those with whom they interacted. One story involved bombing a fire truck on the practice range, and its only point seemed to be that a fire truck is an odd choice of targets. “Crossing the River No Name” muddles up the usual memes of war fiction (religion, football, camaraderie, risk) but the memes never add up to a coherent point.

“Remain Over Day” is mostly about bickering. “Yankee Two” is about bickering between soldiers who debate their failure to kill a twelve-year-old, apparently accepting as a given that nobody should feel bad about killing a twelve-year-old. “Backmask” explains that the code word for women is “feathers” because, I guess, calling them women would be recognizing that they are human beings — a thought that could have been profitably explored, but the story is mostly about breaking down doors and conversing with wild dogs.

In the end, a few of the stories in this collection show promise, but most come across as “I have war experience so I should write war fiction, even if I don’t know what I want to say.”



My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan

First published in 2016; published by Vintage on June 19, 2018

“My Purple Scented Novel” is a short story of literary evil, the worst kind of evil imaginable in the world of serious literature: plagiarism. Two lifelong friends have known each other since college. Both are writers. One turned out to be successful. The other had children. Eventually, the world believes that one stole a novel from the other, and in fact that’s what happened, but the theft is not what it appears to be.

The reader might wonder what motivated the evil writer to act as he did. Jealousy? He denies it. A desire for wealth and fame? He claims to be content with a drafty house, a professorship that is dragging its way to tenure, and a legacy of out-of-print novels. But given his fiendish conduct, the reader might be disinclined to believe a word he says.

Maybe the evil deed is something that Ian McEwan could imagine himself doing if not for the talent that assured he would never be a mid-list, out-of-print author. Perhaps all great writers are a bit evil, at least in their imaginations.

Perhaps the point of the story is not so much the writer’s motivation as the deed itself, the audacity of behaving in such a selfish way and getting away with it. If it weren’t so awful, the display of chutzpah would almost be admirable.

“My Purple Scented Novel” was first published in the New Yorker and is now available as a Vintage Short. It is quite short, but McEwan fans who don’t want to read it (or listen to McEwan read it) on the New Yorker website now have the option of downloading it to a reading gadget. The story is worth a reader’s time regardless of how the reader decides to experience it.