Sophomore volume in a recently inaugurated PEN series honoring debut short fiction published in print or online.
As selected by three judges, including 2017 Kirkus Prize winner Lesley Nneka Arimah, these dozen stories tend to the dark side, with rare moments of humor in a moody fictive landscape; they’re thus just right for their time. In the opening story, “Six Months,” Celeste Mohammed brilliantly captures the confusions faced and moral shortcuts taken by a Caribbean immigrant to New York, who lives in a ratty basement but at least is in America: “That’s the only damn thing that matter.” Faced with an embarrassment of riches of a kind, Luther has to keep an elaborate set of lies straight in his head, but he’s up to the challenge: “Don’t be lucky and coward, Luther. Go brave.” He’s not a bad man, but he’s not very good, either. The same is true of Shutian, a Taiwanese man whose decadeslong life with his wife, Mayling, is lived out in just a few pages in Lin King’s aptly titled story “Appetite”; his great sin is to be inert and boring, moving Mayling to escape, in part by way of guitar lessons with a man destined to become well-known, then forgotten again, as the decades pass. The story is a masterpiece of compression, squeezing whole decades into paragraphs. One comparatively light piece centers on a theme-park Hercules who is confronted by a tot who blurts out the fact that his father dresses up in his mother's clothes when she's not home: “And in this moment,” Hercules thinks, “the only thing running through my mind is, I’ll be damned, that binder doesn’t cover everything after all.” A particularly successful story is a kind of sci-fi/horror pastiche called, fittingly, “Zombie Horror,” and though its editor is quick to claim it as literary fiction, it benefits from a little genre goofiness.
A pleasure for fans of short fiction and a promise of good things to come from this year’s roster of prizewinners.