Stories are prizes without explanation

BOOKS

April 10, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

This annual collection, along with the yearly "Best American Short Stories" volume, provide the best single indicator of the state of the short story. You can pick up a volume from the late 1980s and discern the influence of Raymond Carver by the number of minimalist stories, Or, as in the case with this book, you could see several stories with gay characters and gay themes.

But, in the case of the O. Henry volumes, you make these inferences on your own, for William Abrahams, the editor for 29 years, believes in only brief introductions. He doesn't explain why he chose a story, or comment in any depth on the state of the short story at the time.

That's disappointing, because this is advertised as the 75th anniversary edition of the O. Henry Awards. They were begun by the Society of Arts and Sciences as a memorial to O. Henry, the noted short story writer, who died in 1910. Blanche Colton Williams was the first editor; among the magazines she chose stories from were the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, both of which also produced stories selected in the latest volume.

Mr. Abrahams explains all this in an entirely too brief introduction -- slightly more than two pages. When he does provide analysis, it is quite good. He writes:

"When this series was launched in 1919, it is now clear to us as it would not have been to Ms. Colton Williams, that the genteel tradition of the short story in America was entering its decline. The modern story -- essentially as we know it, with its roots in Chekhov and Joyce -- was soon to emerge in the 1920s with the appearance of such newcomers as Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway -- perhaps the single most influential writer of stories in these seventy-five years."

His description of the contents of this book is no more satisfactory: "If I were to generalize about the stories in this present collection, I would say that they are remarkably free of deference to dogmatic programs, but each pursues its own vision of what the story should be."

Contrast this approach with that of the 25th anniversary volume, which I picked up a few years ago. It gives a thorough summary of the history of the American short story, as well as an explanation by then-editor Herschel Brickell of how the stories in that volume were picked. (For the curious, the top prize of $300 went to Eudora Welty for "Livvie Is Back." )

But since the current volume does not consider these features, one does not know why Mr. Abraham awarded first prize to Cornelia Nixon for her "The Women Come and Go." This story about the sexual and social awakenings in New England in the late 1960s is beautifully written, but couldn't we have gotten at least a sentence as to why it won over, say, Joyce Carol Oates' "You Petted Me, and I Followed You Home"?

Fortunately, the O. Henry volumes do allow the authors a chance to speak, and Ms. Nixon writes, "This story is about three young women raised in the fifties and early sixties, who (despite certain intellectual pretensions) were tutored in placid virginity on the model of Grace Kelly, with the assumption that all of life's essential questions would be answered by the arrival of a prince . . ." In "The Women Come and Go," the theme of homosexuality especially gives the betrayals a sharp, cruel irony.

Two other stories, Peter Cameron's "Departing" and David Gates' "The Intruder" deal with older gay men who have taken up with younger, vacuous lovers. AIDS is an important subtext in each story; in Mr. Cameron's, Lyle, the older man, is still mourning the death of an earlier lover when he starts seeing Robert, whom he met at an ACT UP meeting. In "The Intruder," it's the younger man, James, whose life is affected by AIDS. For him, it's the many friends he's already lost, which helps explain hTC his apparent shallowness and insouciance.

A different kind of passion not accepted by mainstream society is explored in Padgett Powell's "Trick or Treat," a sly story about a bored middle-aged woman's infatuation with the bold 12-year-old boy who cuts her grass. He's a brash kid who, when she first meets him, is wearing a T-shirt with an obscene suggestion on the back. She's got three kids and a husband, but is inexorably drawn to him. "Trick or Treat" is perverse and mordant, and not for everyone, but I liked it.

There's much to choose from in "Prize Stories 1995," and on the whole Mr. Abraham has done his job well. A little more illumination would have made this a splendid volume, though.

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

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Prize Stories 1995: The O. Henry Awards"

Editor: William Abrahams

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 382 pages, $25

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