In continuing to catch up on the stories in this anthology series, I read through the 2005 issue this week. I’ll probably slow down and try to start working my way backward with the Best American series, or maybe I’ll go back to novels, but in the mean time, here are a few highlights from 2005:
- Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen” — a dude’s father picks him up from prison, and the two revisit a West Virginia fairgrounds where some stolen jewels might be hidden. The two men and dude’s girlfriend had been involved with a robbery gone south. Everyone’s a villain.
- Judy Budnitz, “The Kindest Cut” — the narrator reads Civil War letters about her ancestor amputating limbs and cracking up.
- Moira Crone, “Mr. Sender” — a girl pities this man who lives next door to her, because the man’s daughter ran off, but the man probably been abusing the daughter and took up with the girl next door. Very spooky tale.
- Rebecca Soppe, “The Pantyhose Man” — an entertaining story about a woman who works at a hotel switchboard and develops a relationship with a pervert who keeps calling to ask her about her pantyhose.
- Kevin Wilson, “The Choir Director’s Affair (The Baby’s Teeth)” — Wilson hasn’t missed yet that I’ve read; this story is about a guy whose friend is stepping out on his wife and using the guy as an excuse. One day the protagonist gets saddled with his friend’s baby.
They got Amy Hempel to edit the collection this year, and she picked quite a few shorter stories than you normally see in this anthology. For instance, Padgett Powell’s “Cry for Help from France,” is a two-page plotless rumination on courage, an interesting read but a kind of bizarre story. I didn’t love everything in here — in fact, I was having trouble stomaching some of the more blatant “southern” pieces, and wondered if I was losing interest/faith in southern literature. Fortunately, Elizabeth Spencer came in near the end and restored my sensibilities. Some highlights:
- Ann Pancake, “Arsonists” — Pancake is a relatively new Appalachian writer, and this story, about a man cracking up in West Virginia strip mine country, takes on an important political topic through its characters, who have their own private drama within the larger system. A very good read.
- “Aaron Gwyn, “Drive” — This story is about a guy who, after a fight with his girlfriend on the road, speeds up and cruises into the left lane, nearly killing them in a wreck. The action cures their relationship, temporarily, and they embark on a series of reckless “drives.”
- Kenneth Calhoun, “Nightblooming” — A 20-year-old drummer joins a jazz band with a group of partying septogenarians. Need I say more?
- Tim Gautreaux, “Idols” — A few years ago, some editor asked a bunch of favorite southern writers to write an O’Connor-inspired story, which has led to several fun stories. Gautreaux takes a couple of O’Connor like characters — Julian and Parker — and puts them to work on a decaying mansion in Mississippi.
- Brad Watson, “Visitation” — Watson has two stories in this anthology, but this one was my favorite. It’s a simple story about a divorced guy visiting California and staying in a motel with his kid, but the psychology of the story is spot-on, including the guy waking up at 3 a.m. from the whiskey he drank to put himself to sleep.
- Elizabeth Spencer, “Return Trip” — This is the second of Spencer’s stories that I’ve been really, really impressed with. This story is about a husband and wife living in a borrowed cabin near Asheville, and they have two surprise visits — their son from college, and the wife’s third cousin, with whom she has had quite an ambiguous past. The only other writer I can think of to compare Spencer to is William Trevor, in that both authors take fairly simple stories and knock you out with the results. I don’t say this lightly: Spencer is an effortless writer. In just a few paragraphs, you know these characters and care about them. And it all starts with such an innocuous sentence: “It was during a summer season Patricia and Boyd were spending together in the North Carolina mountains that Edward reappeared.” You know Edward spells trouble, and boy does he.
This wasn’t my favorite year for these anthologies. Not sure if it was the stories, exactly, or if I’m starting to get burnt out. There were, however, a few highlights I thoroughly enjoyed:
- Cary Holladay, “The Burning” — She’s one I’ll look for in the anthologies now. Her stories are often historical, and they’re nearly always interesting. This story is set in Colonial Virginia, about burning a heretic slave, and the effect that act has on her master and his wife.
- J.D. Chapman, “Amanuensis” — This story was Chapman’s first publication. It’s about a WWI soldier recovering from tuberculosis in a sanitarium. Very cool historical fiction.
- William Harrison, “Money Whipped” — A rich steel manufacturer decides to make a movie, and hires a filmmaker who sleeps with his wife.
- Keith Lee Morris, “Tired Heart” — I’m not sure what to make of this story’s ending, but the premise is this guy, who is moving across the country, is hired to take his U-Haul on back roads to pick up mysterious packages at a certain time. Each pickup gets stranger, more ominous.
- R.T. Smith, “Tastes Like Chicken” — Despite the title, this is a fun story. It’s a first-person narrative about a snake collector. (His catchphrase is “nodamean?”)
- N.M. Kelly, “Jubilation, Florida” — Two people checked into a hotel at a conference may or may not have an affair. It stuck with me because the story is dialogue-heavy, and a lot of stuff is in the subtext.
There’s also George Singleton’s “Director’s Cut,” but he has a novel, Work Shirts for Madmen, about the same character, that I enjoyed more.
This one was edited by Edward P. Jones, and while there’s not quite the same tonal shifts that you see with different editors of Best American Stories, Jones’s picks tend to be longer and bit grimmer than usual (for instance, two stories with dead dogs, one story with a parrot run over by a lawn mower, and at least one rape). While some of it was even more brutal than I care for, there were quite a few highlights:
- James Lee Burke, “A Season of Regret” — this is just a great suspense story set in Montana, about an old guy in conflict with some bikers
- Joshua Ferris, “Ghost Town Choir” — about a country music singer’s breakup with a single mother; the child, in need of some kind of male role model, keeps visiting the singer. What’s neat is the shift in POV — two first-person narrators (the singer and the kid) with nothing but a space break to signify the shift. Ferris pulls it off well.
- Tim Gautreaux, “The Safe” — a locked safe is delivered to a junkyard, and the story is the mystery of what’s inside.
- Cary Holladay, “Hollyhocks” — she had a story in the 2009 anthology, which was interesting enough, but this story is about some of the same characters. What I like about novels is that you get more than just a glimpse, and Holladay seems to be working on a series of stories about the Fenton family, in rural Virginia in the 1920s, and I love the way the two stories are linked.
- Daniel Wallace, “A Terrible Thing” — a man has a history of dating disfigured women (one missing a hand, one with burn scars, etc.); his wife, who is not disfigured, finds out, and begins obsessing over what could be wrong with herself.
I’m inconsistent when I read anthologies. I skip around, set them aside, read a story here or there. After finishing the 2009 edition, I went back and read the 2008 New Stories from the South cover to cover. I’ve written about some of the writers before (here, here, and here). Other highlights include:
- Pinckney Benedict, “Bridge of Sighs.” A kid and his father are going farm to farm and slaughtering cows to prevent the spread of disease. Strange and disturbing.
- Stephanie Soileau, “So This Is Permanence.” A teenage girl has a baby, and doesn’t know what to do with it. At one point she locks it in the closet and going out with friends. I was skeptical when I began the story, having no interest in teenage girls or babies, but this story really won me over. Very memorable.
- David James Poissant, “Lizard Man.” This won Playboy’s college fiction contest a few years ago. This is about two friends driving to collect remains from one of their fathers, who just passed away. They have a compelling adventure with an alligator.
- Bret Anthony Johnston, “Republican.” The teenage son of a pawnshop owner gets a job delivering food for a Mexican restaurant. His mother has abandoned him and his father, and his father gives him a Cadillac with a torn-up roof. Nothing like a good story about a teenager’s first job.
- Kevin Brockmeier, “Andrea Is Changing Her Name.” Wow. This story is about a girl, and a few pages in there’s this POV twist: the narrator is actually Brockmeier, going omniscient into the girl’s head. He says things like, “It was the first time she could remember speaking to me outside of class.” The first time this narrator popped in, I worried it was just a stupid gimmick, but the story was really affecting. Very well done.
I finally read through this anthology, which I received at Christmas (thanks, Brian!). There’s always some good stories here, and some of my favorites were:
- Katherine Karlin, “Muscle Memory” — An 18-year-old girl working at a Gulf Coast shipyard is trying to learn to weld from this old guy musician. Good descriptions of the work.
- Geoff Wyss, “Child of God” — A teacher at a Catholic school narrates the scandal of a pregnant student. Wyss makes a teacher’s life interesting, which I think is hard to pull off these days since most writers are teachers.
- Kevin Wilson, “No Joke, This Is Going to Be Painful” — A young woman living with her sister and her sister’s husband goes out with some of their friends and creates a scandal when she hooks up with this married guy. Both the protagonist and the married guy are kind of dim, and in a hard psychological place, yet Wilson never judges them, instead makes us sympathize.
- Jill McCorkle, “Magic Words” — This was probably my favorite story from the collection. It’s about a woman who drops off her teenage daughter at the movies, and is then on her way to have an affair at a Days Inn. Stuff happens. Go read it.
- Michael Knight, “Grand Old Party” — I think this is a contender for my second favorite story, about a guy who shows up at his wife’s lovers house, scares the lover away, then eats Chinese food. Knight’s in cliche territory, but keeps the material fresh.
- Elizabeth Spencer,” Sightings” — A half-blind divorced man’s teenage daughter has run away and shown up at his house, and his ex-wife and her fiance show up. This is the first I’ve read of Spencer, and I’m looking forward to reading more.
- George Singleton, “Between Wrecks” — George is as zany as ever, always worth reading. Two guys stuck at a roadside diner because the highway is blocked with a wreck on both sides. A drunk roams from table to table saying, “Ford ate” (four to eight hours until the wreck clears), and evangelists are selling gold teeth and muscadine wine.