The Best American Short Stories 2019 With an Introduction by Anthony Doerr
Published by Mariner Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review by Daniel Picker
The latest edition of the venerable series: The Best American Short Stories, 2019 edition, burns brightly with stories that use colloquial language to illuminate contemporary issues. Ten of these stories shine as the constellation that appears as The Best American Short Stories 2019.
Anthony Doerr’s essay steps off from his youthful searching through Rust Hill’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Doerr, with both humor and seriousness, notes that Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire, presents rules worth breaking at least some of the time. Both Doerr and Pitlor also discuss their lives as writers and parents of growing children.
Both Pitlor and Doerr extol the virtues of reading, and Pitlor notes that today it seems increasingly difficult to find the time to read an actual short story or book, with the ubiquity of competition from “YouTube”, “streaming,” “TV shows and video games,” all of which draw the attention of her twin 12–year–old sons. Pitlor notes the important role short stories may play in forcing Americans to slow down. Doerr sees the short stories of today as mirrors of the political turmoil in society, and notes that he selected his 20 Best while enduring “the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh” and “finished these stories as the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee.” Doerr peppers one paragraph with contemporary issues: “white privilege” and “xenophobia racism and the wealth gap.”
The 20 stories here include at least ten as the bright stars of the constellation that makes up The Best American Short Stories 2019. A handful of the stories capture youthful passion in vibrant contemporary language. Jamel Brinkley’s “No More Than a Bubble” describes a post-college party where two young men pursue two young women at a party in Brooklyn; the story’s passionate pursuit appears: “A neat ladylike Afro bloomed from her head, and she was a lighter shade of brown than her friend with the buzzcut, a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws.” This matches the backstory of the narrator’s father, who referred to his wife as “cioccolata, agrodulce.” Other stories in this collection burn with the vibrant dialogue and colloquial language of American youths. Jenn Alandy Trahan’s “They Told Us Not to Say This” begins with “THE FEW WHITE BOYS in our town could ball.” Trahan’s story, among the shortest in the book, packs power and life. Ella Martinsen Gorham’s “Protozoa” describes the life of a teen girl who observes an “eyesore McMansion” and endures a classmate’s slam poetry and nicknames. The story reveals the power posted videos hold in the lives of teenagers.
Wendell Berry’s story, also among the briefest, has the longest title: “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased to be Told (1935–1978)” burns with the embers of another era. Berry’s story masterfully recreates an earlier period in 20th century America. Berry’s story within a story, ignores Rust Hills’ advice, while drawing attention to a youthful witness. Berry eloquence evokes not only a different time but also revives the importance of stories: “Port William was by then losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a ‘no place’ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.” The story of Port William, with its tinge of scandal and fun, draws from another age, before “the coming of the machines.” The important larger story surrounds the lives of this country place and surrounds the lives of Americans: “That was the defining story then, of Port William and thousands of places like it. It was the story of the young people, changed by the change of the times, who by the war’s end or the midcentury had found their way to city jobs and salaries or high wages, and who returned after that only to visit a bedside in a nursing home, at a loss for something to say, or to bury the dead.”
Veteran science fiction master Ursula LeGuin contributed a period piece, “Pity and Shame” which also masterfully depicts 19th century America. Her story recalls the fire of a passion from long ago: “She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and the fulfilling. . . What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze.” She compares that with nursing a broken man: “This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.”
Manuel Munoz, with his story “Anyone Can Do It” burns with a different sort of passion, one for survival. The lives of migrant workers on the roadside of society in the Central Valley of California contemporize the realm of John Steinbeck. Munoz’s tale of the 1980’s sheds light on the immigration issue and seems contemporary in revealing the lives of itinerant workers of Mexican heritage as it quietly moves toward its conclusion without letting on their impending losses.
Jim Shepard’s “Our Day of Grace” recreates 19th – century lives of those who struggle to survive a precarious existence amid loss. Shepard, recreated the letters of those suffering through America’s Civil War, brings to life those who fought and lived during the conflagration of America’s devastating Civil War, which redefined American values. Shepard has brought to life the lives of those soldiers and their families involved in America’s Civil War, which concluded in 1865. The issues of that war continue to plague America.
Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition” describes two young men who after working construction, watch NBA basketball on TV, and slide into cocaine abuse. This story, among the four which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Bronze” also first appeared. “Bronze” contains a panache for remarkable rhetoric. Much of the story takes place on an Amtrak train in the late 1970’s. As the story travels from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island, the conflicted protagonist attempts to comprehend his college life. Eugenides, in comments near the back of the book, discusses his difficulties in revising his story. All the contributors lend insight in the Contributors’ Notes. The compilation also includes the list of “Other Distinguished Stories” and notes publications publishing short stories in 2019.
The two finest stories in the collection touch on Berry’s themes within his “story of Port William.” Doerr, in his introduction, notes that Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters” deals with the lack of “authenticity” so prevalent in American society. Within the penultimate section of Schaitkin’s story she includes the important details leading to the story’s conclusion. In the face of an impending natural disaster from a tornado, the main characters find a shelter for survival, yet post near obliteration, news of a brother’s backstory adds the story’s last devasting blow.
The bright star or Venus of this collection, “Hellion” burns with sassy sarcasm; it appears as a Southern, rhetorical masterpiece akin to the work of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. With its brilliant evocation of a swamp in the Southeast, the story brings to life a beloved, yet snappy pet alligator, a drunken father, and a hard – working, and mostly absent mother. Julia Elliot’s narrator, a vibrant12–year–old girl describes the scene: “When I cut my motor cicadas blared like summer’s engine. We scrambled from the cart, hunkered down by Dragon’s hole, dug deep by my daddy back in April when I’d found the baby gator moping motherless in the swamp.” This story shines, as it describes the dangerous gator, and it presents the girl’s new friend, a young “city” boy who endures the taunts of local, rural redneck boys. Julia Elliot’s “Hellion” captures, with humor and pathos, all that makes reading American short stories still important and worthwhile in this 21st century.
Daniel Picker studied at Harvard and Oxford and completed an MA in English from Middlebury College in Vermont. His book reviews and personal essays have appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Middlebury Magazine, The Oxonian Review, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The Irish Journal of American Studies. Daniel Picker was awarded The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard and he received a fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He is the author of a book of poems, Steep Stony Road (Viral Cat Press of San Francisco 2012). Fiction by Daniel Picker appears in The Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Kelsey Review, The 67th Street Scribe, and The Abington Review. Daniel Picker studied fiction writing with Southern author and native Virginian, David Huddle, and studied poetry writing with Irish poet and Nobel winner, Seamus Heaney. Daniel Picker has reviewed books by John Banville, David Updike, William Corbett, Jim Lynch, Adam Begley on John Updike, W.S. Di Piero, John Berryman, Doug Holder, John Elder, Rick Hillis, and several others.