Several excitingly original stories from new and recently emergent writers make this now-venerable annual a must for readers who mean to keep up with contemporary short fiction.
The volume gets off to a rocky start with novelist Larry Brown’s meandering, pointless preface (which really ought to have been scrapped). But it strikes gold with its first entry, playwright Romulus Linney’s beautifully structured, compellingly detailed story (“Tennessee”) of an elderly country woman’s survival of hardship, duplicity, and inexorably changing times. Other veteran writers include Max Steele, whose anecdotal “The Unripe Heart” smoothly conveys the confusion of a distracted preadolescent’s wary relationship with his “crazy” menopausal mother; Russell Banks, who limns in “The Outer Banks” a retired couple’s unspoken shared apprehension of their own fate as they deal with the death of their dog; and Doris Betts, at her nerve-grating best in the tense tale (“Aboveground”) of a grieving mother’s conflicted lingering reactions to the murder of her teenaged daughter. Pieces by newly familiar writers include Dwight Allen’s nostalgic, richly comic remembrance of a garrulous eccentric family’s misadventures (“End of the Steam Age”); Lucia Nevai’s sure-handed portrayal of a troubled marriage and a terminal illness “treated” by a forthright “Faith Healer”; and Bill Roorbach’s wonderful “Big Bend,” whose original premise matches a septuagenarian widower working for the National Park Service with a married amateur ornithologist, in a muted romantic comedy that features some irresistible dialogue exchanges (e.g., “The flesh is weak. . . . The flesh has a job to do”). The best discoveries include Aaron Gwyn’s somber, involving depiction (“Of Falling”) of a luckless “survivor” of numerous accidents who sees in the entire shape of his life the fact of his mortality; Corey Mesler’s racy Faustian tale (“The Growth and Death of Buddy Gardner”) of a ’60s blues artist’s supposed “pact with the devil”; and George Singleton’s very funny “Show-and-Tell,” about a schoolboy employed by his divorced father in a devious campaign to romance the boy’s teacher.
Ravenel is one of the most resourceful and intelligent editors in the business, and this entertaining 17th installment is one of her most pleasing productions.