Another winning installment of the nearly century-old prize volume.
One day some enterprising scholar will take the O. Henry Prize anthologies and use them as the basis for a synoptic study of changes in the themes and styles of the American short story. Until that day, a few gross generalizations emerge: The day of minimalism has passed, although a few writers remain under Raymond Carver’s sway; conversations in short stories are seldom as direct as they are in plays, and most of the time people wind up talking past each other; and if short stories are vignettes, manageable slices of life, then life can be awfully damned dreary: “Carl is helping her peel potatoes with another cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Dylan drinks from a can of Guinness.” In short stories, people often behave as they’re stereotypically supposed to—Irish people drink, working-class people argue, rich people stare vacantly—but just as often don’t, and subverting expectations is the hallmark of the best of these pieces. Among the standouts are Olivia Clare’s uncannily timely “Pétur,” set in an ash-covered valley with 86 permanent Icelandic residents and a clutch of existentially uncertain Americans (“She felt nineteen, mostly. She looked fifty”); David Bradley’s neatly compact portrait of family memory as it plays out in the jumbled hills of Pennsylvania, on “rough, recondite roads—Pinchots, he called them—that snaked through gloomed forests before bursting into sunlit coves”; and William Trevor’s terse study “The Women,” with its densely packed opening: “Growing up in the listless 1980s, Cecilia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” The volume’s best story among a field of strong contenders, though, may be Louise Erdrich’s “Nero,” a fine contribution to the nearly forgotten tragic-dog-story genre.
A must-have collection for writers and readers alike: for readers because of the high-quality prose, and for writers because of the trade secrets tucked away in the commentaries.