To mark a quarter-century of publishing the “best of the small press”—including over 500 short stories—editor Henderson has selected his favorite 44, which reflect both the triumphs and the shortcomings of post-Watergate American fiction.
Henderson resists the urge to put this work on a par with “the best stories of the century,” but simply calls them “the fictions of our time, from our heartland, presented without commercial interruption.” The first third of the volume highlights tales by Pushcart’s big names from the ’70s and ’80s—John Irving, Tim O’Brien (represented by “Going After Cacciato,” the Vietnam story later published as a full novel), Cynthia Ozick, Bobbie Ann Mason, Mona Simpson, Richard Ford (the classic “Communist,” published later in Rock Springs), and above all Raymond Carver, whose “A Small, Good Thing” has grown even sharper with age. Moving into the late ’80s and ’90s, Henderson offers up Wally Lamb, Stephen Millhauser, Ha Jin, Junot Díaz, and Rick Moody. Despite the geographical variety of settings from Kentucky to Minnesota to California, monotony looms over many stories anatomizing middle-class family relationships. A certain uniformity of style and a penchant for the present tense occasionally betray the authors’ progress through MFA programs. This monotony is the problem not of this volume, however, but of all contemporary fiction; and since these are 44 of the best writers around, they often manage to transcend the limitations of their age. A large handful that deserve special mention include Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Hair,” which creepily charts the way two married couples fall in love with each other; Tobias Wolff’s “The Life of the Body,” about an English teacher’s lonely 24 hours; and Charles Baxter’s “The Harmony of the World,” a subtle account of a failed pianist. A cognate volume of essays has already been published (p. 1081), and Pushcart poetry is slated for early 2002.
A victory lap for the Pushcart Prize.