Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best American Short Stories 2009

Lately, I’ve been dipping in and out of the new edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Alice Sebold, and I’ve found some excellent stories by some unfamiliar writers. (In fact, that’s the reason I faithfully buy this book year after year, looking for writers—and journals—I haven’t read much or ever.)

I didn’t discover any new journals, but I did find some great new (to me) writers and stories. Here are some of my favorites:

“Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash, set in the mountainous South, is a tight and tragic story about the loss of land and a way of life, all the more chilling because we know the inevitable outcome.

First paragraph:
“His great-aunt had been born on this land, lived on it eight decades and knew it as well as she knew her husband and children. That was what she’d always claimed, and could tell you to the week when the first dogwood blossom would brighten the ridge, the first blackberry darken and swell enough to harvest. Then her mind had wandered into a place she could not follow, taking with it all the people she knew, their names and connections, whether they still lived or whether they’d died. But her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.”

The author notes that the story “came to me first as an image. A man was running from something. He was too old to be running, yet he was running nevertheless.”

“Rubiaux Rising” by Steve de Jarnatt, is set during Hurricane Katrina, about a war veteran whose aunt has locked him up in the attic as a homestyle method of drug withdrawal. The aunt has gone to town before the storm saying she’d be back…but hasn’t returned.

From the beginning:
“This early morning, as Rubiaux rouses, it is long-dead quiet. Like wads of chawed paper stuck flush back up against eardrums. Just blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood rushing nothing in his head. Then blood simmers down, and he can hear gulls squawking on the wind somewhere. He sees gray light squeezing through rippage in the curling tarpaper lining the inside of this well-built roof. Wood is bare, creosoted here and there, but no paint. He has tried to steal an hour of sleep after an unholy night of ceaseless howl and shredding from the fiercest storm this parish has ever seen. How the roof stayed on was miracle indeed, testament to his late Uncle Zachary’s carpentry skill. The extra nail he’d always pound, just to be sure. But that craftsmanship has also imprisoned poor Rubiaux here in dire predicament. All night, as the din of the tempest crescendoed again and again, he thought it surely must be the Rapture. But here he is at dawn—left behind—not risen to heaven.”

This is the author’s first piece of fiction he ever sent out, and his first published story. (!!!) He notes, “The tale was spawned from an exercise given to me: write about a man in a room with a plant.” [Note: This is why writing teachers like to assign exercises!]

“Sagittarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about an unusual baby born to a couple…think centaur. "Fix" the baby, or not?

From the beginning:
“…While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump: tucking his forelegs up, hind legs flexing and thrusting, body tracing a parabola through the air; then the earthward reach of the forelegs, the tucking up of the rear hooves, the landing. They shouted his name in unison. When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop…”

And I’m always interested to hear stories like this one, from the author’s note: “The first version of the story was rejected by about fifteen magazines and journals. I later rewrote it, adding the older brother and his point of view, and his character led me to the idea of the car crash. I’m thankful now for the failure of the first version, because this final one is much better.”

Enough teasing…get your own copy!

(Note to FTC Overlords: I bought this book with my own money. No freebies to report.)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.