Even by the consistently high standards of the venerable annual, this one’s a treat.
Since the year’s guest editor has the final selection, this volume reflects the penchant of novelist Russo for storytelling rather than postmodern experimentation or self-conscious wordplay. Offering a dictum from Isaac Bashevis Singer in the introduction that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and to instruct”—in that order—Russo has compiled a collection of consistently entertaining fiction that engages itself with this world (rather than conjuring its own world or reducing the world of fiction to words). “There are no triumphs of style over substance, and the language, while often beautiful and sometimes absolutely electric, is always in the service of narrative,” he writes. Yet the 20 stories are a varied lot, from lesser-knowns such as Maggie Shipstead (whose “The Cowboy Tango” suggests a narrative kinship with Annie Proulx) and Wayne Harrison (whose “Least Resistance” finds a young man caught in a romantic triangle with the wife of his mechanic boss and mentor) to mainstays including Charles Baxter and Jill McCorkle. It’s hard to resist a story that begins, “He wasn’t even a good lion tamer, not before you showed up” (“My Last Attempt To Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer,” Brendan Mathews) or, “The day after Arty Groys and his wife retired to Florida, she was killed in a head-on collision with a man fleeing the state…” (“The Valetudinarian,” Joshua Ferris). Though the foreword by series editor Pitlor admits, “It is indisputable that American literary journals are in danger,” with even the few of the newsstand magazines that publish fiction publishing less of it, the stories themselves seem as vital as ever.
Any reader will likely discover a new favorite writer here, or more.