THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES
Since the death of Martha Foley, the Best American Short Stories series has been in the hands of annual celebrity-editors--so, while William Abrahams' O. Henry Awards collections have become ever more sturdily sound and balanced, the Best have become idiosyncratic and erratic, more a gathering of personal favorites than a trustworthy reflection of the evolving short-story scene. And now, with selections by the notoriously didactic John Gardner, this decimation of the Foley legacy is virtually complete. Gardner's faintly apologetic introduction gives one a fair idea of what's ahead: he says that he put off his compilation to the last minute, that some stories were included because of his wife's strong feelings; he announces his preference for stories of "deep seriousness"--which, in this case, means sentimental, unsophisticated work written in opposition to all the sorts of fiction which Gardner so famously deplores (cf. Moral Fiction). And it's disturbing to note that four of the weakest pieces originated in literary magazines with Gardner-academia connections. True, five of the stories here are worthy of anyone's anthology: Raymond Carter's "Cathedral," perhaps an American classic (already anthologized in this year's Random Review); Charles Baxter's "Harmony Of The World"; William Hauptman's loose and rippling delight, "Good Rockin' Tonight"; Mary Robison's pop-artish "Coach"; and a piece of grim, grisly realism from Charles Johnson. The rest, however, is heartbreakingly dull: a YA-ish dolphin story; Holocaust parables of no immediacy whatsoever; the dreary memoirs of an aging roue; a particularly long and uninvolving Joyce Carol Oates story; and several amateurish efforts among the rest. As a sampling of what moral-crusader Gardner likes in short-story fiction, then, this is certainly informative. But it's hardly a fair reflection of the year's best--and perhaps this series should take on a new title if such unbalanced collections are to be expected in the future.