1990 Short Stories: Portrait Of Contemporary America

November 25, 1990|By JOAN MOONEY

The Best American Short Stories 1990.

Edited by Richard Ford.

Houghton Mifflin.

374 pages. $19.95. Readers look to annual "best of" anthologies such as this one as a barometer of the current quality of an American literary form. They can also be used, without too much exaggeration, as a measure of what's on the minds of Americans.

As if to illustrate that point, these stories are filled with unhappy marriages, lost love, children of divorce, and children and adults who are part of the drug culture. Interestingly, Richard Ford, who chose the stories, says in his introduction that he did not come across many funny stories -- although one of the best, "You're Ugly, Too," by Lorrie Moore, is very funny.

Leaving aside questions of whether these stories are better than the best of 1988 or 1970, the collection contains several very satisfying stories. As Mr. Ford points out, none is wildly experimental, as would have been the case 20 years earlier -- and that, too, may be a reflection of the times.

One of the best, Richard Bausch's "The Fireman's Wife," is conventional in form but unusually sensitive and accurate in the way it captures the dialogue and feelings of its characters. During the three days of the story, the fireman's wife, Jane, realizes for the first time the extent of her unhappiness in her marriage.

The mundane details -- the fireman's hobby of flying model airplanes, Jane's boring job in a car dealership, her night out at Shakey's with her friend, Eveline -- bring the characters to life beautifully. The details accumulate to make Jane's decision to leave plausible, and the tragic twist later in the story provides an excellent counterpoint.

"You're Ugly, Too" is more than the token funny story. Ms. Moore's deadpan humor offers hilarious barbs at both small Midwestern towns and New York City. The story begins wonderfully. "You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal. Once, when the Dow Jones dipped two hundred points, a local paper boasted the banner headline 'NORMAL MAN MARRIES OBLONG WOMAN.' They knew what was important."

The story centers around Zoe Hendricks, a youngish history professor at a small liberal arts college in one of those Illinois towns. She is considered a bit of a renegade, and her student evaluations have comments like "Professor Hendricks has said critical things about Fawn Hall, the Catholic religion, and the whole state of Illinois. It is unbelievable."

Zoe goes to visit her sister in Manhattan for a Halloween party and meets the man with whom her sister wants to set her up. He is insensitive and lacks subtlety, and their clashing personalities give Ms. Moore the chance to show her mastery of dialogue. She weaves together the various strands of the Manhattan and Midwestern scenes with apparent effortlessness. It is, to use Mr. Ford's phrase about a good short story, a little miracle.

Several other stories meet his test of what we want from stories: "to have eternal passion revealed in that heart where before all seemed known and discovered." Another story by Mr. Bausch, "A Kind of Simple, Happy Grace," shows how a priest's worries about his elderly minister neighbor's health reflect more on himself than on the old man. In Patricia Henley's "The Secret of Cartwheels," the narrator remembers the months of her childhood when her mother wandered off without warning to a mental hospital, making it impossible for family life ever to be the same after she returned.

"The Wizard," by C. S. Godshalk, tells of a teen-age drug runner in the Boston ghetto. At the urging of an old woman who used to be his teacher, the Wizard (the nickname comes from his ability to calculate complicated street drug prices in his head) takes a placement test and wins a full scholarship to a nearby prep school. Ms. Godshalk skillfully captures the inner-city dialogue and setting, as well as the Wizard's beginning glimpses of another life.

This is the 75th year this anthology has been published. The efforts of the series editor, Shannon Ravenel, to use the collection to put the contemporary short story in a large context -- by choosing a different writer every year to select the stories and write an introduction, and have each author write a few paragraphs about the story -- make it more than just another "best of" collection.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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