This year’s anthology of 20 stories could almost be called The Best of The New Yorker, since 40 percent of guest editor Moore’s choices appeared there first.
Moore calls the collection “a kind of group portrait of how humanity is currently faring,” and one gets the impression that it’s faring poorly in rather consistent ways, if the number of characters here who are down-in-the-dumps guys drinking too much is any indication. Sherman Alexie’s homeless Spokane Indian in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is an alcoholic with a “busted stomach.” T. Coraghessan Boyle’s southern California transplant in “Tooth and Claw” is most comfortable in a bar filled with old men drinking themselves into oblivion, like his father. And Stuart Dybek’s Chicago hit man in “Breasts” wakes up with a hangover on the Sunday he’s supposed to “do a job.” Then there’s John, in Paula Fox’s “Grace,” a lonely accountant whose dog, Grace, gives him some way of connecting with others until she develops heartworm, resulting in his slugging down four whiskeys and deciding to order a steak. Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Screenwriter,” who gets a day pass from the psych ward, visits a former patient he calls the ballerina, gets drunk, takes some of her meds, and watches her burn her nipples with cigarettes and pour hot wax on her thigh. John Updike’s David Kern, who uses his 50th high-school reunion to remember his first real kiss, is a quiet relief from all this, as are Alice Munro’s masterful “Runaway” and the fetching homage to Munro, Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner.” Mary Yukari Waters and John Edgar Wideman also bring welcome spaciousness, with stories about, respectively, a Japanese primate specialist adjusting to a heart condition and memories of the war years, and a man whose search for the imprisoned son of a deceased friend opens him back to life.
A familiar and ultimately disappointing selection. Short-story aficionados know by now to turn to the Pushcart anthologies for new voices.