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The Year’s Best, 2004

edited by Shannon Ravenel

Pub Date: June 4th, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-432-4
Publisher: Algonquin

A mixed bag of 18 mostly unsurprising stories by names both celebrated and more regionally obscure in the 19th installment of this well-established series.

As usual, series editor Ravenel aims for a broad readership with stories ranging from the generic writing-program sort (Michael Knight’s blithely paced account of a divorced father’s kidnapping of his young daughter, “Feeling Lucky”; Bret Anthony Johnston’s lachrymose and rather derivative “The Widow”) to more truly weird tales informed by innate southern proclivities for dogs, church signs, and General Lee (in, respectively, Ann Pancake’s “Dog Song,” Drew Perry’s delightful “Love is Gnats Today,” and R.T. Smith’s forlorn visit to the Lee Chapel in “Docent”). What makes this collection specifically southern? Tim Gautreaux in his preface suggests love for their region and for storytelling as salient traits. “A Rich Man,” which first appeared in The New Yorker (the others were published in literary magazines across the country), meets these criteria: The language is colloquial and stylistically unforced, the characters quirky and richly depicted, as Edward P. Jones shows his elderly protagonist taking up a life as a swinger and drug dealer following his wife’s death after 50 years of marriage mostly living in the same apartment house in Washington, DC. But not every story fits the mold; two that stand out in a most welcome fashion from the conventional selections are Brock Clarke’s edgy “The Lolita School,” delineating the curriculum of a “alternative country day school of some sort” in South Carolina that will mold young girls into Nabokov’s seductive heroine, and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan’s “Saturday Afternoon in the Holocaust Museum,” which follows an estranged couple's trek through a Richmond afternoon. Each author was asked to offer commentary on his or her story, which many find an unfortunate invasion of their fictional space: “I have trouble remembering whether much in my life was fact or imagined,” notes “Pagan” author Rick Bass in discomfort).

Well-crafted tales from a laudable tradition, though Ravenal might encourage more experimental voices next time.