American themes, richly condensed

May 08, 1994|By Joan Mooney

It is tempting to see any annual collection of short stories as a mirror of contemporary American life. This year's O. Henry Awards make that even easier by including three stores about gay or lesbian love, and three stories looking back on the Vietnam War from the perspective of the present.

But there are also stories about heterosexual love, the love between a parent and child, adolescent love, death and violence. Seeing how these writers treat the age-old themes in one of the most condensed art forms is what makes this book worth reading every year.

The stories range so widely in tone and setting -- from the Puerto Rican widow in Judith Ortiz Cofer's "Nada" to the aging black field worker in "Jeremiah's Road" -- that you wonder whether longtime editor William Abrahams was striving for cultural diversity when that is itself a theme of America.

The writing styles are just as varied (although many are in the first person), but they have one thing in common: Nearly all the stories grab the reader in the first couple of sentences, so you have to read on. The winner of the first prize, Alison Baker, writes in the authors' comments of her story, "Better Be Ready 'Bout Half Past Eight," that the first two lines popped into her head one day, and she took it from there:

"I'm changing sex," Zach said.

Byron looked up from his lab notebook. "For the better, I hope."

We can no more keep from reading the rest than Ms. Baker could from writing it. A story that treats as sensitive a subject as changing sexuality with both humor and seriousness is a rare find.

The narrator in Kelly Cherry's "Not the Phil Donahue Show" is trying to deal with problems faced by many women today -- balancing work and home life, bringing up a daughter in the aftermath of a divorce; there are also problems that are less common but very much a part of American life in 1993: working with patients dying of AIDS, and trying to frame her reaction to a daughter who has just announced she's in love with another woman.

My favorite is the third-prize winner, Lorrie Moore's "Terrific Mother." In a daze after the tragedy that opens the story, Adrienne agrees to marry Martin Porter, a research economist who has a grant to work for a month at an Italian villa filled with academics. Ms. Moore has a good time making fun of their dinner conversation: A musicologist who had devoted his life to the quest for "the earnest andante" finds that the use of the minor seventh chord makes most andantes "fraudulent and replete."

But what gives the story its power is the juxtaposition of this parody with the details that make up Adrienne's lonely drifting; the loving description of the gourmet menus at the villa's formal dinners, followed by the emotional denouement when Adrienne and Martin finally start to connect -- surely this is the best a short story can offer.

Amy Bloom's "Semper Fidelis" packs the emotion of loving a dying man into a few short pages. It is about an 18-year-old woman who married a 50-year-old professor. Ten years later, he is bedridden and dying of cancer.

Ms. Bloom captures well the tortured love-hate relationship a well person has with a dying one, and in this case it is heightened by their scandalous past: "Now that we cannot see ourselves in the curious excited eyes of other people, the differences which defined us are fading away. We are just a man who is dying and a woman who is not."

Even after scanning the local mall for a young man to have sex with, she (the narrator is never named) thinks, "Everything important that I know, about literature, about people, about my own body, I have learned from this man and he is leaving me the way we both expected I would leave him, loving, regretful, irretrievable."

Many of these stories succeed in the short story writer's difficult task: condensing the emotion of a character's lifetime into a single moment, so the reader, having known the characters for only a few pages, can share in the wonder and torment.

Ms. Mooney is a writer who lives in Washington.

Title: "Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards"

Editor: William Abrahams

Publisher: Anchor Books

Length, price: 382 pages, $10.95 (paperback)

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