Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 78th volume in the series (the second edited by Dark), this year's O. Henry collection is full of powerful performances, from the furiously ironic Lorrie Moore tale that opens the volume (the first-place story) to the heart-shattering Annie Proulx story that closes it. In "People Like That Are the Only People Here" (also in her current collection, Birds of America), Moore takes on an event nearly impossible to relate dispassionately (but she does), of a mother who sees her baby endangered by cancer. In "Brokeback Mountain" Proulx tells, with restraint and wrenching clarity, of two dirt-poor Wyoming ranch hands and the hard bargains they make to love each other. Other familiar authors work the veins they have already claimed. Steven Millhauser's second-prize entry, "The Knife Thrower" (the title of his latest collection), describes collusion between a performer and his voyeuristic audience in the best Poesque Millhauser style. Alice Munro's third-prize story, "The Children Stay" (in her collection, The Love of a Good Woman, forthcoming in November), describes a woman on an emotional precipice, capturing the moment a young mother walks out on her children. In "Satan: Highjacker of a Planet," Louise Erdrich gives us a girl drawn into religious and sexual passion. There are also gems here by less celebrated writers, such as Akhil Sharma's "Cosmopolitan," about a lonely Indian immigrant trying to adapt to love American style, and Maxine Swann's "Flower Children," in which parents in perpetual flower-childhood raise offspring. Many of the stories work common American themes: unhinged Protestantism, displacement and reinvention of self, and the wilderness, both physical and emotional. Some stories ramble, and others fall back on violence for effect. But the refreshing voices of Reginald McKnight, Peter Weltner, George Saunders and Thom Jones redress the balance. (Oct.)
This year's editions of two well-known fiction anthologies have some similarities but more differences. Three stories appear in both volumes, among them the first-prize winner in the Prize Stories (PS) volume: Lorrie Moore's harrowing, unsentimentalized account of a sick child, "People Like That Are the Only People Here." Each also includes a different Western by E. Annie Proulx. The other selections seem to reflect the particular tastes of the editors. Keillor states up front in his introduction to Best American Short Stories (BASS) that his choices cover "your basic age-old themes" and that he likes stories that tell him "something true about somebody's life." Those he has selected, though ranging widely in voice, character, and setting, are mostly character-driven, realistic tales of interactions between families, friends, or lovers. In PS, Dark, while not ignoring the themes favored by Keillor, has made room for more experimental fiction, including Steven Millhauser's surreal "The Knife Thrower" and Rick Bass's allegorical "The Myths of Bears." It's generally a riskier collection than BASS, though both volumes contain enough variety to offer readers something to love as well as hate. Recommended for most collections.--Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow
This latest installment of the venerable O. Henry winners, edited by old-hand critic Dark (Prize Stories 1997, etc.), provides some pleasures amid few surprises. "You are what some would call a serious reader," Dark assures us at the start. "The very fact that you are interested in these twenty stories is proof enough." But it's not all work and no play, for many of the entries here manage to entertain as well as mean. The obsessive introspection that has nearly killed the short story as a popular art form is largely absent, and traditional narrative seems to be enjoying a comeback, if the pieces offered this time around serve as any guide.
Lorrie Moore takes First Prize with "People Like that Are the Only People Here," a mother's account of her baby's illness in which self- conscious irony ("The Tiny Tim Lounge is a little sitting area at the end of the Peed-Onk corridor") verges on black humor while staying just within the boundary of good taste. Second Prize-winner Steven Millhauser's "The Knife Thrower" describes in almost gothic prose the Svengali-like effect of a carnival actor upon an audience of small-town folk ("We had heard that among his followers there were many, young women especially, who longed to be wounded by the master and to bear his scar proudly"). Alice Munro's Third-Prize-winner, "The Children Stay," is more in the contemporary mode: an almost disembodied recollection of a woman's adultery and then abandonment of her family that becomes finally more ponderous than meditative. Several backwoods pieces, Rick Bass's "The Myth of Bears" (Yukon trappers) and Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" (Wyoming ranchers), manage to resuscitate old-fashioned realism with local color, but the best is Louise Erdrich's "Satan: Hijacker of a Planet," a taut, extraordinarily eerie description of a country girl seduced by a charismatic revival preacher.
Definitely worth picking through, even for readers who aren't all that serious.