Forty-one and counting: the latest installment of the literary prize volume delivers, as ever, with abundance and occasional splendor.
The Pushcart franchise fires on all cylinders, bringing in work by relative newcomers as well as old hands. Sometimes this causes a bit of whiplash. How, after all, can a novice fictionist compete with the likes of “He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously—and no shower but a drawn bath—he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo”? That’s T.C. Boyle, exulting in the pages of Kenyon Review in gritty details and food porn, and his precisely observed approach sets a standard that not all of the pieces gathered here meet. On the nonfiction side, originally writing in Granta, Barry Lopez sets a similarly high bar, earnest and instructive: “Over the years traveling cross-country with indigenous people I absorbed two lessons about how to be more fully present in an encounter with a wild animal.” Those two lessons might save someone’s life, worth the price of admission of the prize anthology, or they might simply inspire some other fine writer on nature and/or fact. One such scribe is Eric Wilson, whose memoir of an eccentric Faroese writer is restrained but affecting; allowing for the rather flat short story that precedes it, it makes a good start to a long and overstuffed volume. Indeed, that flatness seems a desideratum in the workshop-ish phylum (“After seven weeks at college, it still felt funny to Chandra to wear shower shoes, which were highly recommended to avoid fungus”), but nothing some time with the likes of Martin Espada, Elizabeth Scanlon, and Jenn Shapland can’t take care of.
There’s something for everyone here, and anyone with an interest in contemporary letters will want to see the venerable Pushcart’s picks.