'Best' has been better, but it entertains

October 31, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

To institute a series with "Best" in the title is to invite disagreement. How can one person -- in this case, guest editor Tobias Wolff -- determine the 21 stories included in the 1994 volume are, indeed, the best written by Americans in a particular year? Certainly one can miss good stories, and certainly one's biases play a part in making selections.

At the same time, the strength of this series is not whether the stories that are chosen are the finest in the land. Rather, these volumes indicate the direction that short stories are headed in terms of style and theme, and also provide discussion and insights on the genre itself.

The contributors explain in a few paragraphs how the story came about and what they were trying to say. But more revealing are the introductions by the guest editors, usually top story writers themselves.

In 1990, Richard Ford wrote: "I want endings (not stoppings) that close like supernovas and leave you gasping." He went on to say that he didn't necessarily expect Raymond Carver or Donald Barthelme to write stories the same way, but you got a sense of what Mr. Ford tried to do in his work and how he selected the stories he did.

The 1988 introduction by guest editor Mark Helprin has attained almost legendary status for its vehement reaction to political correctness, university writing departments and minimalism, then the dominant style in short-story writing.

"Minimalists appear to be people who have not been forced to struggle, and who have not dared upon some struggle to which they have not been forced," he wrote contemptuously. "They live in a strange, motionless, protected world."

Mr. Wolff adopts a more benign attitude in this year's compilation. He gives a few observations on the genre ("Stories give form to what otherwise remains imperfectly known to us -- hidden or denied"). But mostly he celebrates the writers themselves, and what he calls the "extraordinarily high quality" of the stories he read. Of the contributors to this volume, he writes admiringly, "You feel the depth of their vocation in the solidity of every sentence."

I found the stories to be strong, but not exceptional. I don't think there was a singularly remarkable story, as was Richard Bausch's "The Fireman's Wife" in the 1988 collection or Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" in the 1986 volume.

"Things Left Undone," by Maryland native Christopher Tilghman (he now lives in Massachusetts), was a well-constructed, sensitive story about an Eastern Shore couple coping with the death of their child, who had cerebral palsy. Denny, a dairy farmer, is a taciturn type who doesn't react openly to much, even after little Charlie dies. How does he comfort his grief-stricken wife, Sue? He says to her: "It's all over now. We can look ahead."

Of course, it isn't all over. Sue leaves Denny and takes up with a man in town. For comfort, Denny turns not to his equally quiet father, but to a boat, which provides him escape. The ending is appropriately melancholy and ambiguous, but it was unsettling to see Mr. Tilghman tell rather than show in several key passages: He would explain a character's feelings and motivations rather than let actions reveal them.

Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona," concerns the trip that a young American Indian takes from Seattle to Phoenix to claim the body of his ne'er-do-well father. Victor could not get the money for the trip from his tribal council, so one of the tribe's certified misfits, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, volunteers to lend him some. Their journey is told in a spare and ironic style that is suffused with quiet affection for the characters.

Tony Earley's "The Prophet From Jupiter" is a surreal tale about life in a resort town in western North Carolina. The narrator is the dam keeper for a large lake. He dreams of catching a catfish as long as a man; his wife is having an affair with the chief of police. There are other bizarre couplings, other betrayals and craziness in "Prophet," a modern Southern Gothic tale full of black humor. This story isn't for everyone, but I loved it.

Mr. Wolff notes that many of the stories are written by relatively unknown writers, and actually the better-known authors have been better served in other places. Barry Hannah's "Nicodemus Bluff" and Thom Jones' "Cold Snap" both were rather forced works that did little for me.

But it's hard not to agree with Mr. Wolff's observation that the writers "all use the story as a way of seeing better, bringing the hidden to light." Now on to 1995.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "The Best American Short Stories 1994"

Editor: Tobias Wolff

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 364 pages, $24.95

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