An elegant salvo in the ongoing debate about the state of the American short story, this collection, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the famous O. Henry Awards, raises some questions about the uses of fiction. Where, as one of the prize jurors, Michael Cunningham, remarks, are the icy, intellectual stories of 30 and 40 years ago? Are we less cynical? Or so cynical that we crave an injection of feelings? Short fiction is getting longer and richer, stuffed with anti-Modern sensory detail and the complicated inner lives of its characters--more Henry James than Hemingway. (Only one New Yorker story made the cut for these awards.) Emotion is back in vogue, and with it the realistic, "well-made" story. In subject matter, death is in; sex is out.
Granted, some of this reflects the taste of the series editor, Larry Dark, who selects the 20 award stories from 3,000 or so contenders each year. First-, second-, and third-place winners are decided on by a panel of prize jurors--for 2000, Pam Houston, George Saunders, and Cunningham. Whether it confirms your suspicions about American publishing or seems more or less inevitable, many of these O. Henry stories are by well-known writers, among them Russell Banks, Mary Gordon, Andrea Barrett, and John Edgar Wideman. (Wideman wins first prize here for "Weight," which Cunningham describes as a combination of autobiography and fiction that "spill over into each other because the story''s messy, deeply personal emotions require it.") Nathan Englander, an exceptionally well-placed newcomer, is represented with "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." There is a minor, posthumously published Raymond Carver story as well ("Kindling"), a fictional treatment of material that he had also addressed in a poem called "To Begin With."
Among the newer writers, Judy Budnitz ("Flush") and Kevin Brockmeier stand out for their unexpected observations and their devotion to the word. In Brockmeier''s luminous love story, "These Hands," a male nanny forms a helpless, permanent attachment to his 18-month-old charge. Leaving her bedroom one night after putting her in the crib, he lifts a red plastic See ''n Say from the toyshelf and points its dial at the picture of a lion:
This, said the machine, is a robin, and it whittered a little aria. When he turned the dial to a picture of a lamb on a tussock of grass, it said the same thing. Dog and pony, monkey and elephant: robin--twit twit whistle. Lewis set the toy against a wall, listening to the cough of a receding car. He passed through the dining room and climbed the back stairway, wandered the deep and inviolate landscape of the house--solemn with the thought of faulty lessons, and of how often we are shaped in this way.
Although the O. Henry winners provide a generally representative sample of the best of recent American short fiction, this collection makes no acknowledgment of the tremendous boom in erotica in the last three years, or the persistence of literary experimentation by a few dark and wayward souls. --Regina Marler
An Anchor Original
The 80th anniversary edition of "the nation''s most prestigious awards for the short story."--The Atlantic Monthly
Established early in the last century as a memorial to O. Henry, throughout its history this annual collection has consistently offered a remarkable sampling of contemporary short stories. Each year stories are chosen from large and small literary magazines and a panel of distinguished writers is enlisted to award the top prizes. The result is a superb collection of twenty inventive, full-bodied stories representing the very best in American and Canadian fiction.
If You Enjoy "Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards (Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories) (Paperback)", May We Also Recommend: