A great story gets its hooks into you right from the start; you know you're in the hands of a good writer when the very first sentence transports you wholly into another world. "Mother preferred Zulu servants." "It must be, Ruth thought, that she was going to die in the spring." "Who would have thought that a war of such proportions would bother to turn in its fury against the fools of Chelm?"
The 21 fictions featured in The Best American Short Stories 1999 have very little in common--but whether they're about ranchers or commuters, romantic seekers or New Age pilgrims, what they do share is a sense of urgency. In each of them, there's a kind of voice that announces its need to be heard. "I'm not a bad guy," pleads the narrator of "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," and even though he cheats on his girlfriend, by the end of Junot Díaz's story you might be tempted to agree anyway. (Especially considering the charming way he turns Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener into a verb--as in, "A lot of the time she Bartlebys me, says, 'No, I'd rather not.'") "Real Estate," by that master of bittersweet comedy Lorrie Moore, starts by repeating "Ha! Ha! Ha!" for two solid pages but becomes a rueful take on marriage, house-hunting, and even death: "The body, hauling sadnesses, pursued the soul, hobbled after. The body was like a sweet dim dog trotting lamely toward the gate as you tried slowly to drive off, out the long driveway. Take me, take me too, barked the dog."
Other standouts in this collection include Alice Munro's "Save the Reaper," a kind of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" where no one is killed or saved; Rick Bass's haunting evocation of winter in the north country, "The Hermit's Story"; and Tim Gautreax's "The Piano Tuner," about a manic-depressive Creole princess playing cocktail piano in a motel lounge. (This is one tale that truly does end with a bang, not a whimper.) Taken together, they are ample evidence that the American short story is alive, well, and eminently able to--in the words of guest editor Amy Tan--"help us live interesting lives." --Chloe Byrne
From Publishers Weekly
Despite increasing competition, this annual collection remains the place to find the most compelling short fiction published in the U.S. and Canada. Guest editor Tan comments that many of her 21 choices carry "an exotic flavor.... Either the narrators were ethnic or the settings outside America." Especially noteworthy are several stories with South Asian locations or characters. In Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" an Indian tour guide finds himself at first puzzled by an Indian-American family, and later drawn to its frustrated mother and wife. James Spencer's "The Robbers of Karnataka" follows Americans who visit South India seeking an enlightened swami, and encounter armed bandits instead. Other strong entries come from such stellar names as Alice Munro ("Save the Reaper"), Rick Bass ("The Hermit's Story") and Lorrie Moore ("Real Estate"). But much exciting work here emanates from young writers. The evocative "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," by Junot D!az, follows a troubled New York City Latino couple to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where "the entire history of late-20th-century automobiles swarm[s] across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses... " Nathan Englander combines Yiddish folktale and Nazi-era horror in "The Tumblers," as a group of Hasids performs a grotesque acrobatic act in the heart of Berlin. Hester Kaplan's "Live Life King-Sized" also merges comedy with mortality: the owner of a Caribbean resort must accommodate a guest who asks that he be allowed to die on the island. The selection draws on 17 journals, from the New Yorker to the Clackamas Literary Review; and many of the stories have published in such collections of the authors' work as For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Birds of America and Welding with Children. Such a high caliber of literary excellence speaks well for the state of short fiction. (Oct.)
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