Among the 20 competitors in what novelist Patchett (Bel Canto, 2001, etc.) terms “the short story Olympics,” there are plenty of worthy contenders for the gold medal.
As usual, this annual anthology mixes stories from perennial favorites (including former guest editors Tobias Wolff and Ann Beattie, and the obligatory and always welcome Alice Munro) with selections from small-circulation literary journals, highlighting the range of possibility within the genre. Where a short-story collection by a single author tends to repeat patterns, rhythms and themes, there’s a much greater sense of serendipity and surprise here. Whether because of the luck of this year’s draw or the preferences of the guest editor, the narratives are typically more straightforward than experimental, frequently first person, strong on the storytelling verities of plot, character and dialogue. Many of them (including Donna Tartt’s “The Ambush,” Maxine Swann’s “Secret” and Benjamin Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh”) concern adolescent initiation and rites of passage. Though all of the writers are North American, the settings extend from a Korean island resort (Paul Yoon’s “Once the Shore”) and dog racing in Beijing (Jack Livings’s “The Dog”) to the Bosnian poetry community (Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Conductor”) and an American’s return to his family’s native Latvia (“A New Gravestone for an Old Grave”). Many of the stories tend toward the short side, but the last and longest is the most wickedly funny, as Beattie lampoons the bi-coastal memorial services of an esteemed painter turned alcoholic, pornographic comics illustrator. The shortest and strangest is Robert Coover’s “Grandmother’s Nose,” in which a young girl (in another rite of passage) comes to terms with death in a fairy-tale subversion of “Little Red Riding Hood.” In one of the most inventive, Katherine Bell’s “The Casual Car Pool” finds a sky-diving parachutist caught on a bridge, disrupting rush hour and complicating the lives of three strangers sharing a ride to qualify for the car-pool lane.
Though more radical narrative strategies aren’t represented, the selection is of such consistently high quality that almost any of these stories could be some reader’s favorite.