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The Pushcart Prize spotlights small magazines, the genome of our literary culture. While Partisan Review folded this year, independents such as Threepenny Review, Zoetrope and Tin House (the latter two founded in the '90s) are flourishing. Editor Henderson errs on the side of excess: there are 61 contributions in fiction, essay and poetry. In nonfiction, there are strong personal essays, like Myra Jehlen's "F.P.," the memoir of a friend, which deals with the gruesome last rites of death (dressing the corpse, wheeling the coffin into the crematory, etc.) with an aplomb that habitu s of Six Feet Under will appreciate. Rachel Cohen's "Lost Cities," a meditation on two poet/clerks-Pessoa and Cavafy-raises the topic of fame's various scales, and the inspiration of the routine. 2003 might have been a year of war ("The big wars are over/but the small ones never end," as Dorothy Barresi's "Poem to Some of My Recent Purchases" sadly puts it), but the majority of this fiction is still very domestic. However, three stories do address terrorism: "At Five in the Afternoon" by George Steiner (about narco-traffickers), which is too wordy; Paul West's "Idlewild" (about the aftermath of 9/11), which is too oblique; and Ben Fountain III's "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," which sets in motion fresher ironies. John Blair, an ornithology grad student, is kidnapped by a Colombian leftist group that, to his dismay, sells out. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that there are few comic stories. An exception is Joan Connor's blackly humorous "What It Is," in which Connor throws a bucket of ice-cold prose over the disastrous tryst of two middle-aged lovers. Hopefully, these selections will tempt readers to go out and sample American small magazines themselves. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The 2004 iteration of the longstanding best-of series, as always, scours the literary journals for outstanding new fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and memoirs that ordinary readers might otherwise have missed. Some of the pieces here are merely fashionable and as such ephemeral; others promise to endure beyond a few literary seasons. Established writers are heavily represented, and there are wonderful entries from the likes of Evan S. Connell, who, perhaps in accidental homage to Stanley Elkin, imagines a curmudgeonly businessman adrift in history and given to dyspeptic griping about all sorts of things ("the republic would be better off if Nixon had spent a couple of decades mumbling and raving in the jug"); Joyce Carol Oates, who conjures up bookish nerds of the 1950s; and the normally hyperurbane George Steiner, who turns in a violent little tale from the drug wars ("Pablo Escobar? You want to know about Escobar? He was a turd. A mother-fucking turd"). Younger writers also figure, notably Valerie Laken in a nicely mannered debut work of short fiction. Pushcart publisher and author Henderson (Tower, 2000, etc.) proclaims that "this glorious collection . . . should give us all faith that in the age of American Empire-when money, machines, and machinations seem to rule-the still quiet voice of inspiration and individuality is alive and thriving." A little self-serving, that, but he's on the right track, emerging with another in a long line of good books.