Dark’s perfunctory introduction to this year’s collection is right about one thing: there are a lot of deaths in the 20 stories selected by judges Michael Cunningham, Pam Houston, and George Saunders.
Tim Gautreaux, now a staple of such anthologies, strikes the one humorous note in the volume that gives top honors to John Wideman’s meditation on his mother’s death, a somber, almost schmaltzy, blues riff. Just when you thought, though, that it was safe to read annual anthologies without encountering Raymond Carver or his epigones, the editors include a posthumous piece by the daddy of minimalism himself, a tiresome tale of a dried-out alcoholic who renews himself after chopping a few chords of wood. The Atlantic Monthly, represented with three stories, wins the magazine honors, and Mary Gordon’s “The Deacon” well merits its third prize: it’s a smart profile of a righteous modern nun who learns the true meaning of loving those who we’re inclined not to. Melissa Pritchard’s “Salve Regina” also tangles with the church: a non-Catholic girl attends a convent school and sublimates her confused sexuality into passionate faith. Religion figures quite differently in Nathan Englander’s tale of a gentile investment banker who suddenly decides one day that he’s an Orthodox Jew, a decision with devastating practical consequences for his shiksa wife. But death sustains the longest note here: in Russell Banks’s “Plain of Abraham,” a construction foreman inadvertently causes the death of his former wife; in John Biguenet’s poignant “Rose,” a woman keeps a folder of computer-generated physical updates on her long-dead son; in Kate Walbert’s “The Gardens of Kyoto,” a woman remembers a cousin killed in the South Pacific; and in Alice Dark’s “Watch the Animals,” a snooty community comes together to respect and honor its most eccentric member as her death approaches.
The few historical stories, while a welcome change, seem mostly warm-ups for bigger works; in any case, the 80th edition of this fine series serves its basic function: it’s a window into the world of contemporary fiction.