A renewal of the longtime prize-volume series, perhaps its strongest installment yet.
Leave it to guest editor Díaz, of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao fame, to make a cogent, even urgent claim for the primacy of the short story without resorting to academic fancy-pantsness: “Novels might be able to summon entire worlds, but few literary forms can match the story at putting a reader in touch with life’s fleeting, inexorable rhythm.” Vita brevis, so ars brevis, then. Díaz opens with a wonderfully self-effacing memoir concerning his own checkered successes as a short story writer before turning over the stage to a fine roster of writers, most in midcareer. If there’s a shared preoccupation here, it would be that very vita-brevis business; many of the pieces touch on death, sometimes head-on, as with John Edgar Wideman’s perfectly paced “Williamsburg Bridge” (“Dawns on me that I’ll miss the next Olympics, next March Madness, next Super Bowl. Dawns on me that I won’t regret missing them”), and sometimes a touch more obliquely, as with Louise Erdrich’s eccentric but chilling “The Flower” (“Nobody took a knife and stabbed an uncle who held her foot and died as the blood gushed from his mouth”). When not outright cemeteries, the settings of many pieces are clinics, dark woods, and rec rooms where 9/11 is the theme of conversation. These are, in the main, then, sober-minded pieces, marked by tears and angst and confusion, the stuff of life indeed. There’s no whiff of political correctness to the choices, which stand out entirely on their own, but even so it has to be said that Díaz’s compilation is the most diverse and inclusive entry to date of any of the major annual story collections—reason enough to get it in the classroom, and a good vehicle for readers to see what’s up in neighborhoods they may not be familiar with.
Essential for every student of the short story form.