In Short Order
By Christine Wald-Hopkins
JANUARY 31, 2000:
The Best American Short Stories of 1999, edited by Amy Tan (Houghton Mifflin). Cloth, $27.50.
AFTER CENTURIES OF immigrants streaming into the U.S., a cultural byproduct is splashing out. What does it resemble? The same streams that entered, but with uniquely American sediment.
Amy Tan's splendid selection of the Best American Short Stories of 1999 comprises one cosmopolitan American current. The diverse locales range from Katmandu to the Golden Gate Bridge, from the north woods of Canada to a kindergarten in rural China. The characters are as far-reaching as the settings: you've got your talking John Deere, your deep-fried luchis, your Swami.
The stories may be culturally diverse, but the themes are universal -- adultery, generational relations, isolation, dying, revenge, oppression -- and the perspective is decidedly American.
Not surprising considering Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club generational tales, more than a half-dozen of these stories involve telescoped family histories. Annie Proulx scratches a memorable family portrait in "The Bunchgrass End of the World," one of her examinations of life on the geographical and emotional edge of society. Life lurches on in comfortable dysfunction until daughter Ottaline encounters the talking tractor.
Less imaginative -- though more affecting -- is the fate of the daughter in Sheila Kohler's "Africans." Opening with the line, "Mother preferred Zulu servants," it chronicles the life of a woman unfortunate enough to get what she wished for, and Zulu loyalty shows a different face.
An actress grandmother gets to play an unscripted role with the grandchildren and a crew of Oates-like characters in a trash house in Alice Munroe's deliciously creepy "Save the Reaper." But Tan's hand is clear in the inclusion of Chitra Divakaruni's restrained "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter." Mrs. Dutta contemplates her grandchildren and her new life in Los Angeles. The villain in this story hails from a country where you could "stare out the window for hours and not see one living soul" and where, in Bengali, there's not even a word for "privacy."
Cultural difference doesn't stop with family relations in this group of stories.
Junot Diaz's very likable bad boy has some penance to pay for indiscretion in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," and he attempts to fulfill it with a holiday from New Jersey back to Santo Domingo. He's cheated on his nice, Catholic girlfriend, but he thinks he can square it with her on his beloved island. But this is another kind of story, too, and Diaz's bungling Romeo celebrates Domingo and democracy and cultural fullness...whatever his luck with the girl.
There's nothing particularly innovative or startling about this fin de siècle writing. With a couple of minor exceptions the narrative structure is fairly traditional -- chronologically arranged, with clear flashbacks. For the most part, the writing doesn't call attention to itself; it serves to develop plot or character. What is striking about the assortment -- and promising for the future of the American short story form -- is the richness of character, setting and voice. Judging from this collection, nothing shy of damming the infusion of cultural freshness could keep the American short story from continuing to evolve.
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