The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 gathers twenty of the best short stories of the year, selected from thousands published in literary magazines. The winning stories range in setting from Japan at the outset of World War II to a remote cabin in the woods of Wyoming, and the characters that inhabit them range from a misanthropic survivor of an apocalyptic flood to a unicorn hidden in a suburban house. Whether fantastical or realistic, gothic or lyrical, the stories here are uniformly breathtaking. They are accompanied by the editor’s introduction, essays from the eminent jurors on their favorites, observations from the winning writers on what inspired them, and an extensive resource list of magazines.
"Irises," Elizabeth Genovise
"The Mongerji Letters," Geetha Iyer
"Narrator," Elizabeth Tallent
"Bonus Baby," Joe Donnelly
"Divergence," David H. Lynn
"A Simple Composition," Shruti Swamy
"Storm Windows," Charles Haverty
"Train to Harbin," Asako Serizawa
"Dismemberment," Wendell Berry
"Exit Zero," Marie-Helene Bertino
"Cigarettes," Sam Savage
"Temples," Adrienne Celt
"Safety," Lydia Fitzpatrick
"Bounty," Diane Cook
"A Single Deliberate Thing," Zebbie Watson
"The Crabapple Tree," Robert Coover
"Winter 1965," Frederic Tuten
"They Were Awake," Rebecca Evanhoe
"Slumming," Ottessa Moshfegh
"Happiness," Ron Carlson
The Jurors on Their Favorites: Molly Antopol, Peter Cameron, Lionel Shriver
The Writers on Their Work
For author interviews, photos, and more, go to www.ohenryprizestories.com
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This year, as always, when the reading got under way for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016, the stories in the just-published 2015 collection whispered in my ear that this would be the year when I wouldn’t find another twenty worthy of succeeding them. The haunting prediction held for a while, and then the first right one appeared. This year, Ron Carlson’s “Happiness” reassured me that once again there were more wonderful stories to discover for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016.
A story with that title might be greeted with skepticism. Happiness? Really? The word’s in our Declaration of Independence but most of us can’t say what it means to be happy, though we know the feeling when it’s there and we miss it when it’s gone.
Carlson’s characters—the narrator, his brother, and two sons—are meeting at the family’s mountain cabin in October to secure the place for the winter. When the narrator and his son stop for the night in Wyoming, it’s five degrees above zero and there are pickup trucks parked in front of Wally’s, home of the Wally Burger. The narrator knows that the “smart shepherds and collies” that would in warmer weather be in the trucks are in the motel’s warm rooms. Game three of the World Series is on TV. The narrator lays out these simple and ordinary conditions as if he were describing a moment in paradise.
The unhurried pace of the narration speaks of happiness as the narrator luxuriates in his modest way. He isn’t about to rush anything, not his descriptions of the weather, land, trees, water, trout, or deer. Even the cabin’s copper Levelor blinds have their moment. Happiness might glow and inspire, in memory and in its presence, but it doesn’t last, a truth here not stated but implied by the aesthetics of the story.
The one female character, the boys’ mother, isn’t there, though she’s present. She and the narrator are divorced, and we don’t know why or when. A letter she’s written to the narrator, which he receives from his son in the course of the story, is protected from the wet and treated with the same care as any other object. When the narrator tells family stories he includes her, calling her “your dear mother.” Their parental love, which is also a love for each other, reveals itself in the narrator’s careful patience as he instructs their sons.
By the time the vivid, beautifully written story reaches its end, the reader realizes why the narrator is determined to teach his sons how to take care of the cabin and wants them to know how to find a certain place on the land. The reason is more often the cause for tears and not happiness, though Carlson’s “Happiness” would have it otherwise.
Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby” brings us to the ball game but from inside the very center, from the pitcher’s point of view. The story takes place during a game—not just any game but a possible perfect game. We see how the pitcher’s life has led him to this moment.
The pitcher’s tics, familiar to any baseball fan, are his way of controlling what little he can in the uncontrollable game and in his life. He uses his tug, wipe, and touch to his cap to “harness energy and deliver it.”
“Bonus Baby” is in the mythic tradition of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, in which baseball is treated as a variant on the Trojan War and the players like demigods and great warriors—but in Donnelly’s vision the pitcher is a Midwesterner and speaks with the inherent groundedness and modesty of that region. He’s the son of former athletes, homecoming king and queen, whose lives rolled downhill after high school. They spend their adult lives cooped up indoors, his mother as a secretary and his father as an alcoholic mechanic in a textile mill. Their positions are as different as can be from the pitcher’s at the center of the playing field. The lesson they teach their son is that glory will not come, and the pitcher must throw beyond his inheritance of failure in order to win. The reader is with him every inch of the way.
In Charles Haverty’s engaging “Storm Windows,” a son recalls his father’s enslavement to a house. Putting on storm windows and taking them down can be a strain even for those who love a house; Haverty’s choice of the necessary and tedious chore is a shrewd one, for the twice-yearly task embodies the quasi-matrimonial devotion that some houses demand.
The narrator, Lionel, dislikes the big old-fashioned house, as do his mother and sister. “Only my father, who traveled often on business and spent the least amount of time there, loved the house.” As an adult, Lionel is fated to take care of another demanding house because for his wife, “a child of divorce, the house represented a triumph over the chaos of her youth.” For Lionel, his own house demands repeated chores and rescue operations performed, with any luck, by others. Lionel has no talent or taste for home repair.
“Storm Windows” reaches through Lionel’s marriage with its tenderness and troubles, his daughters’ sweetness in childhood and reproachfulness as young adults, his father’s near-deaths, and his mother’s consistent bitterness. In a crucial scene, the first of his “deaths,” Lionel’s father asks that his record of “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot be played. The aria ends with “Vincèro” (I will win), a moving cry against cold nights, death, and the darkness of the sky. Both Lionel and his father are stuck in the darkness of marriage, adultery, and their imperfect love for each other.
Haverty mixes a protest against mortality with the comedy of a sick man welcoming the ambulance attendants who’ve come to rescue him and offering them pancakes. The best we can do, the story might be saying, is to try to protect and love one another, as clumsy at it as we turn out to be. The author’s combination of the quotidian and the unspoken gives “Storm Windows” its power.
Lydia Fitzpatrick’s “Safety” is about danger, and it begins in a setting of sleepy safety, a children’s gym class. It would be unfair in this case to give a précis of the story’s action. However, it gives nothing away to say that, aside from an intelligent and compassionate dissection of this particular danger, the story’s strength comes from the writer’s capacity to understand the mature and fantastical lives of children. The story within the story is about trust.
The story is told from the points of view of several children and takes place in an elementary school. Everything in the school has been designed by adults for the children, from the décor to the daily customs, the lining up for phases of the school day, staying silent when asked to be, not speaking out of turn. The children trust in the adults in exchange for the promised safety. It’s an agreement that honorable adults work hard to keep. Without the trust children are asked to give unquestioningly, the drama of “Safety” would be negated.
Though the story is about a type of violence that is hard to understand, its focus is not on harm. Rather, it concentrates on the ways in which characters relate, some at their best, others at their worst, and the story demonstrates that even the most evil character is capable of love.
Even stories categorized as fantastical are based on some level on familiar human life. In such stories it’s not only the entertaining and delightful details that keep us engaged but also the shadow of the familiar. In Geetha Iyer’s “The Mongerji Letters,” the eponymous family has been charged for generations with the preservation of places, weather, and botanical and animal specimens that are extinct or nearly so. New items for the Mongerji collection arrive in envelopes. Another family, the Chappalwalas, explores the world, capturing the rare and the endangered, and sending their treasures to the Mongerjis. So it’s been for many years. An ordinary letter in a matching envelope might contain the Arctic Ocean, complete with a polar bear. Storage was no problem for a long while—the many envelopes were filed away—but the world is changing, society degrading, and the Mongerji family is forced to retreat with the collection.
Time is both brief and elastic in Iyer’s tale. Extinction puts pressure on those who would preserve the world, yet for these characters years go by as one of our days might pass. “The Mongerji Letters” is told through a correspondence between young Mr. Chappalwala and various Mongerjis, and Iyer gracefully pushes along time and information about events and characters through the various voices. She creates a constant tension between the timelessness of the strange events and our overwhelming sense that we’re watching a dying planet, a very contemporary feeling. The tension is gently reinforced by the old-fashioned epistolary form and the style of the dates, for example, “September 7, —18.” Is it 1918? 2018? 3018? Iyer’s intricate story could be set at almost any time and be just as engrossing and as wise.
Robert Coover, a master storyteller, writes a small-town story that reads like a tale from the Brothers Grimm rather than a chapter of Winesburg, Ohio. “The Crabapple Tree” is narrated by a woman no better and no worse than her peers. Her parenting style can be summed up in her credo: “Children have to be allowed to grow up on their own—I’ve always believed that.” The subtext of “The Crabapple Tree” is the power and anarchy of neglect.
Our narrator tells two tales simultaneously, one of magic and murder, the other of the ordinary people in her town going along to get along. The children in question are her own daughter and her peculiar playmates, the possibly magical and probably evil Marleen and Dickie-boy, whose birth caused his mother’s death. Dickie-boy is sickly and weak, also lonely, and Marleen plays dangerous games with him, putting a leash around his neck and teaching him to act like a pet dog: “She even taught him to wee with his leg in the air.”
Childish meanness is one thing but both Marleen and Dickie-boy have special powers. He can find lost things and she speaks in a bird language only Dickie-boy can understand. Cassandra-like, Marleen tells stories full of casual cruelty and no one believes her. When the narrator’s daughter finds her friend playing with Dickie-boy’s bones and Marleen explains how and why she came to have them, it’s the end of their friendship and the beginning of more severe isolation for Marleen.
Very few children of any age really know their parents. In Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Exit Zero,” Jo, an events organizer, must deal with her dead father’s house and possessions. Jo hasn’t seen or heard from her father in years. It falls to her to erase the mess of his life, to clear out his house, and to sort through what he’s left to see if there’s anything worth keeping. Then she must clean the house—“ranch-style on a prim cul-de-sac”—and put it up for sale. She learns soon enough that she knew even less than she thought about her father.
When Jo tours the house, she finds “workout resistance bands” next to his bed. These surprise her but she’s distracted from interpreting small puzzles by planning out her work: one room a day and Bob’s your uncle.
More surprises await Jo, a big furry one in particular, and these make “Exit Zero” both funny and poignant. Her father’s death is an inconvenient disruption to Jo’s life, not least because it forces her into a relationship with him that’s badly timed and unwelcome. She must allow it to do what it will.
Strange things are happening in the college town where David H. Lynn’s “Divergence” takes place. Jeremy Matthis has just completed successfully his hero’s journey: the trials and tests of a tenure review. For the rest of his life, he will be a very privileged person and one who might stay exactly the same.
To celebrate his victory, Jeremy’s wife, Shivani, gives him a “blue-and-silver Italian bike” to replace his battered old ten-speed. The very first time Jeremy rides his new bike, his world changes.
Lynn chose well for “Divergence” when he gave his hero the achievement of tenure. The word itself implies not only holding, as in holding on to a job, but also being held by that job and its institution. Divergence isn’t always welcome at an institution that depends on the steadiness of its faculty, nor by an anxious academic who assumes that he can finally relax. “Divergence” is an unexpectedly spooky story.
Diane Cook’s “Bounty” is an imaginative meditation on privilege. Lust and greed enter the story, and chaos costars, but privilege plays the leading part. The story is postapocalyptic—the world is flooded—and the narrator is self-sufficient, very well prepared, and remains high and dry while all around people are drowning and starving. The narrator is condescending to those who’ve failed to plan ahead, and unmoved by their filth, illness, squalor, and even deaths. This is not the story of Noah; the well-appointed house is kept locked.
High-minded notions about compassion and charity aren’t part of the narrator’s outlook on the dying world. Men come to the door begging for food and shelter. Conditions worsen. Where once there were colonies above water, now they are “underwater, most of their inhabitants drowned.” As it turns out, the narrator may be right to refuse to help. That way lies disaster.
One of the pleasures of Cook’s tale of the nastiness of humanity under pressure is the comedy of possessions, of having just the right thing. The narrator is hopelessly materialistic and comments on the outfit of a drowning man, his nice suit, his interesting tie: “It was a kind of damask rose pattern, but nontraditional. Of course, only designers change designs. It’s why we used to pay so much for them. We paid for innovation.” Given its provisions of water, wood, gas, food, the narrator’s clean and dry house might be the one next door in any prosperous American neighborhood, stuffed with Costco-sized supplies. And that the narrator decides to carry a knife next time someone tries to get into the house isn’t exactly the stuff of science fiction: We’re a nation armed to the teeth.
The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Slumming” is a schoolteacher on summer vacation in a derelict house she owns in a run-down town. Daily, she buys drugs from townspeople she calls zombies. She buys one foot-long sandwich per day. There’s nothing else to do in the hardscrabble town. The sidewalks are crumbling and the people barely get by. She can afford to own her house and pay the taxes and insurance, even on her salary from teaching high school English in the city. She prides herself on not being her sister, who is rich and has a country house where there is a lot to do in the way of museums and concerts, and more people like her. The narrator isn’t looking for neighbors or friends. She doesn’t want to be part of the place. She is, as the story’s title announces, slumming. The story takes its sinister turn when the narrator, despite her lackadaisical self, becomes involved with a native of the town, a girl much less fortunate than herself, younger and in need of a lot of help. The lure of the story is watching the narrator become a real neighbor, not wishing for it in the least. (See Peter Cameron’s words on “Slumming,” page 319.)
The narrator of “Cigarettes,” the title and subject of Sam Savage’s story, doesn’t want to give up what the writer Jean Stafford called her “little friends.” They are always with him. They are useful and punctuate time for him. They also separate him from any other friends he might want, and even his own daughter. Savage’s brief tale is more tender than a reader might expect from a meditation on cigarettes. It’s about choosing and loving.
We shed our cells when we’re alive. We become ash when we’re cremated. But in between cell and ash, especially if you’re Aunt Marjorie in Adrienne Celt’s “Temples,” there are delicious, complicated cakes to eat, one every week. There’s a great-niece to help raise. There’s whole milk to drink and chicken cutlets to eat, and the prohibitions of her increasingly vegan great-niece to ignore. There’s also the Mormon Church. Marjorie was born in Wroclaw, now a city in western Poland, and there she met a boy who once was nothing and no one. After his conversion to Mormonism, he straightened out and performed miracles, inspiring Marjorie to convert also. Though she’s a bit slack by nature, she loves the strictness of the church and, it seems, its confidence in its vision of this life and the next.
“Temples” examines the relationship between Aunt Marjorie and her great-niece, who mourns by remembering all the things there were to disagree with, to criticize, to admire, and to love, and all the things, as small as ash and as large as love, that left when Aunt Marjorie did.
The first sentence of Wendell Berry’s “Dismemberment” tells the whole story: “It was the still-living membership of his friends who, with Flora and their children and their place, pieced Andy together and made him finally well again after he lost his right hand to a harvesting machine in the fall of 1974.” From that sentence, we know that one loss almost becomes the loss of all that Andy Catlett values—work, marriage, family, friends.
And so Berry, a master poet, essayist, and fiction writer, unwinds “Dismember- ment.” From his first sentence he pulls the threads of membership and dismemberment, falling to pieces, breaking up, straight through the story. The unity of language and thought in Berry’s story characterizes all the best short stories.
Even more than his three other O. Henry Prize stories, “Dismemberment” exults in the poet’s love of language. Berry brings many meanings to the one loss and shows his main character coming apart and being put back together until he’s able to rejoin his family and community. It’s very hard to write a story that looks as simple as this one.
Shruti Swamy’s “A Simple Composition” is a powerful sexual history of one woman, Arundathi, who tells us from the start that she isn’t desirable: “I was shy, with a moon-shaped face and neat black hair, and I was so dark that my marriage prospects would have been grim had my parents not been well-off.” Her first crush is on the man her parents engage to teach her the veena, a stringed instrument. Arundathi’s teacher is charmless with one powerful exception that elevates him into a seducer: “As he played the veena his face became no more beautiful but it was touched by the grace of the music. . . . A simple composition, like the one he chose for me, became something else in the belly of his veena, something distilled to its essence. A longing for god, or for perfection.”
Arundathi has no musical talent and is moved to submission by her teacher’s great gift. In time, she marries a naïve boy, and moves with him to Germany. The accomplishment of the story resides in the bell-like tone of the narrative. It is clear and pure, as true as a confession might be at the end of the world, and anything but a simple composition.
Elizabeth Genovise’s “Irises” begins with desperate romance and ends in deep and nourishing love.
A young dancer is leaving her husband to run away to New York with her lover, a musician. She’s on her way to meet him but she hesitates. The problem is that she is pregnant. The narrator of “Irises” is none other than the baby watching from her mother’s womb, telling us that she might never have been born if the day had gone differently. The lover is prepared to let the baby go. The dancer longs for a different life, a better version of the one she used to have before she was injured, and a child is not part of that dream. “Irises” is very much a woman’s story, developing from a young woman’s romantic dilemma and complicated choice to the deepening of a mother and daughter’s relationship. It’s natural for a child to think that a parent’s fate was always to be a parent. “Irises” tells another tale. Our juror Lionel Shriver called Elizabeth Genovise’s story “stunningly accomplished.” (See pp. 320–22.)
In Rebecca Evanhoe’s “They Were Awake,” Emma, Amy, Becca, Carrie, Sabrina, and Liz gather for a potluck dinner. Each woman brings part of the meal, and all are “beautiful dishes,” but the real nourishment is their friendship. With a little wine and good food, they begin to exchange dreams, or rather to tell the stories of their dreams. Each comments while narrating, and then they begin to talk about the nature of dreams: “You know, it’s funny how we keep describing our dreams. Everyone keeps saying the word realize. ‘I realized.’ But it’s not like that in dreams, is it? It’s knowing. It’s only after you wake up that you use the term realize.”
What the reader begins to realize is that these attractive, intelligent, fortunate women are afraid. They are trapped in their dreams. Some of their fears are based in reality and, all the more frighteningly, some are not. Dreams represent our most vulnerable and personal selves, and also ourselves at our most irresponsible. No one has control over her dreams. The characters in “They Were Awake” exchange their dreams as casually as they might swap gossip, finding refuge in one another’s company before sleep begins again.
Zebbie Watson’s first published story, “A Single Deliberate Thing,” will kick up memories in any reader who was ever in love for the first time and left behind. The narrator addresses her absent boyfriend, who has enlisted in the military and gone to a different state for basic training. That the lost connection between them is a close one is verified for the reader in every small detail she relates of her months with her dying horse and with her parents, who act as a loving Greek chorus dispensing useless adult wisdom. She tells him about the unrelenting heat and drought. He knows all the places, animals, and the people. He was with her in those places, and he’s done all those things. Her summer is colored not just by the drought and her sick horse, but also by his silence in the presence of her words.
Asako Serizawa’s “Train to Harbin” is set in Japan in 1939, when China and Japan were already at war. The story’s concerns are still contemporary and resonant today. The guilt of civilian scientists who design and carry out torture for the military is a familiar subject. Serizawa’s prose is dense, deliberate, and exact. She leads us through different time periods seen in different ways as her narrator works to make sense of his own participation in a dreadful experiment. Its consequences reach deeply into the long life he leads postwar, and for him it’s as if the war will never end. Molly Antopol chose “Train to Harbin” as her favorite story, and her commentary is illuminating. (See pp. 317–18.)
Frederic Tuten’s “Winter, 1965” gets everything right. The details of New York in the cold winter of 1965, as experienced by a young man who hopes to be a writer, are exquisitely correct and evocative.
There are barriers between the narrator as he is and as he wishes to be. Though he works hard at his writing, he is unpublished. He makes a meager living as an investigator at the Welfare Department, a disheartening job if ever there was one. One depressing element is how long he might have the job; it promises him security, which feels like a prison sentence. His supervisor, who’s been in the Welfare Department since the Depression, tries to console him by pointing out that his clients might tell him stories that might be useful to his fiction. “But he didn’t need stories. What he needed was the time to tell them.”
The plot of “Winter, 1965” works its way around a magazine and its editors, but the real story is in the young writer’s ruminations: how his work will strike the leading intellectuals of the day (Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv); his anxiety that nothing will ever change and that he will be forever trying to find more time to write and trying to be published; that he will be without love and without reward for his writing. His day job gives us a chance to see his painful compassion and the helplessness he feels about his clients, one gallant woman in particular. Still, in his anxieties, the writer isn’t so different from other young people for whom the future looms threateningly.
Peter Cameron chose “Winter, 1965” as his favorite story of the present collection. (See page 319.)
Another story about a young writer takes place in an entirely different literary scene: our current milieu of writers teaching writing, workshops set in faraway places, and graduate degrees. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator,” though filled with the precise emotions and moves of a novice writer feeling her way into a new role, is principally about the young woman’s affair with an older man. She loved him before they met because she loved his writing, and she was naïve enough to think that loving his work and him were the same thing. When the workshop ends, it seems inevitable that she will stay with him, despite the pull of her husband and dog back in New Mexico, where she has a life. In Berkeley, she has only her lover and his increasingly uneasy company.
One of the charms of Tallent’s story is her use of the narrator’s misunderstanding of the older man’s discomfort and her paralytic incapacity to leave when she knows she should. Though this mistake isn’t exclusively a problem of the young, Tallent uses it to reveal the narrator’s instability; there are moments when she seems so young and foolish that she could float away. Fortunately, Tallent is a generous writer and lets us see what the narrator becomes—the same person but wiser and all grown up. Without the final section, “Narrator” would be poignant; with it, the story is one that will stay with the reader.
Table of Contents"Irises" Elizabeth Genovise
"The Mongerji Letters" Geetha Iyer
"Narrator" Elizabeth Tallent
"Bonus Baby" Joe Donnelly
"Divergence" David H. Lynn
"A Simple Composition" Shruti Swamy
"Storm Windows" Charles Haverty
"Train to Harbin" Asako Serizawa
"Dismemberment" Wendell Berry
"Exit Zero" Marie-Helene Bertino
"Cigarettes" Sam Savage
"Temples" Adrienne Celt
"Safety" Lydia Fitzpatrick
"Bounty" Diane Cook
"A Single Deliberate Thing" Zebbie Watson
"The Crabapple Tree" Robert Coover
"Winter 1965" Frederic Tuten
"They Were Awake" Rebecca Evanhoe
"Slumming" Ottessa Moshfegh
"Happiness" Ron Carlson
Reading The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016: The Jurors on Their Favorites
Writing The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016: The Writers on Their Work
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