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The Boston Phoenix Selling Short

This is the year to learn to love stories

By John Freeman

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Until recently, short stories were the refuge of fiction's most die-hard fans. Readers looking for good, risk-taking short fiction had to seek out obscure journals with names like ZZYYAA and Salamander. And chances are you didn't find many story collections on the display table at your local bookstore. Yet 1999 has been a great year for short-story fans. Annie Proulx and Richard Bausch returned to the form with collections that pack a novel's wallop. Furthermore, some of the year's most exciting debuts -- too many to do them all justice here -- were made in the short form. Jhumpa Lahiri, Jon Billman, and Nathan Englander proved again that, as Richard Ford once remarked, a good short story can be like "a little miracle." And for those who need to be weaned from novels slowly, collections of linked stories by Melissa Bank and Bliss Broyard could just be the ticket. So if you or anyone on your gift list has been waiting for the right time to learn to love short stories -- well, that time is now.

Anthologies are often the best place for novice story readers to begin. The nice thing about them is if you don't like one writer, you can simply skip ahead. (When a book costs $40, throwing it out the window is not an option.) Daniel Halpern's The Art of the Story (Viking) is one of the best primers to appear in recent years. This hefty volume collects the work of 78 writers from 35 countries, showcasing highlights of the past 50 years. Martin Amis's "The Immortals" narrates a tale from the perspective of a deity who has never died ("I once stayed awake for seven years on end," its narrator brags), while Haruki Murakami's cheeky "The Elephant Vanishes" tells of an elephant's disappearance from a Tokyo suburb. Running the gamut from high farce to domestic realism, these tales celebrate the artistic liveliness of short fiction today. More-chauvinistic readers might like John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century (Houghton Mifflin), which offers American classics in abundance: well-known tales by Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner appear side by side, to enriching effect. But more interesting are the gems Updike unearths from the musty archives of Houghton's famous annual. J.F. Powers, Benjamin Rosenblatt, and Pam Durban nearly steal the show from their more heavily lauded colleagues.

As Updike remarks in his introduction, one of the story's nicest features is its ability to capture the diversity of the American experience. Some of the year's best collections draw power from their loving portraits of America's heartland, including two -- Annie Proulx's Close Range (Scribner) and Jon Billman's When We Were Wolves (Random House) -- that celebrate the weed-choked farmland of Wyoming. Now best known as a novelist, Proulx made her fiction debut with stories, and her work can be found in both Halpern's and Updike's anthologies. In Close Range, she returns to the form with 11 folkloric tales about gals and chaps with thick skins but soft hearts. "The Mud Below" may be the best story ever written about the rodeo life, but it also mines territory that's familiar to us all -- the mixed blessing of our parents' emotional legacies. "Brokeback Mountain," a future classic, sensitively brings to life the affair two married cowboys have while tending a herd on a remote mountain. Proulx, who now lives in Wyoming, writes of her adopted state and its people with the wisdom and toughness of one born there. And native son Jon Billman is equally true to this soil in his debut collection, which features 13 hair-raising tales about people perched on the precipice between hope and despair. The title story concerns a ragtag bunch of nobodies who become somebodies when they play baseball together. "Atomic Bar," a close second to Proulx's "The Mud Below" as the best rodeo story ever written, uses language as boisterous and bumpy as a bronco ride to tell the tale of a uranium prospector who brings the wildest ride ever to Alakali, Wyoming.

Things might be safer for Billman's crew if they got out of the saddle and left Wyoming, but the Kentucky characters in Chris Offutt's Out of the Woods (Simon & Schuster) find they have tougher times of it when they leave home. In the collection's title story, a young buck becomes the first in his clan to cross the state line when he goes to retrieve a friend's body. In "Barred Owl," another displaced Kentuckian winds up dead, this time by his own hand after a long winter in an isolated cabin far from home. At the beginning of the winter he finds an endangered owl from Kentucky, dead on the roadside. By the end of the story, his fate and the owl's are one.

Like Offutt, Tom Franklin infuses his tales with a Carver-like rhythm, only he sets them in the polluted swampland of America's deep South. In the almost unbearably bleak title novella of his debut collection, Poachers (Morrow), three half-brothers run amok in an Alabama swamp territory, killing a rookie game warden and terrorizing others, until they cross paths with a mythic poacher-cum-lawman. Franklin's men, if kept within state lines, might lay waste to the state's treasures. If left too long unread, who knows what they'd do to your bookshelf?

Where Franklin's and Offutt's characters find themselves mired in the South, Jhumpa Lahiri's and Nathan Englander's struggle to negotiate multiple cultural ties. In her brilliant debut, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner), Lahiri shows how Indian-Americans struggle with what they left behind. In "When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine," a young girl's parents have a local Indian émigré to dinner during a time of upheaval in their native region. Noticing that the man keeps two watches -- one on Boston time, the other synchronized to the clocks in East Pakistan -- the young, increasingly Americanized girl can't decide which one she should be watching. In the collection's high point, "Sexy," a young woman has an affair with a Bengali man who has closer ties to his native country than to her. Though their ties to India differ in degree, all of Lahiri's characters interpret maladies of the heart through the India of their memory.

Jews with closer ties to the Old World populate Nathan Englander's hallucinatory debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf). In each story, rabbis, wig makers, and writers struggle to deal with life's messy, fleshly realities -- sex, desire, and death -- within the rigid confines of their shtetl ideologies. The world these characters inhabit is mostly closed, but Englander's writing teases it open, revealing the intricacies within.

Writing about the heart has been a staple of the short-story form since Edgar Allen Poe's haunting "The Tell-Tale Heart." Since Updike left his stamp on American fiction, however, those who've followed have found things in domestic life scary enough to spook even Poe. In Someone To Watch Over Me (HarperFlamingo), Richard Bausch continues much in this vein. "Two Altercations" dramatizes the unarticulated tensions in a couple's marriage against the violence of a traffic-jam shooting. When bullets start to fly, the husband flees the car. Afterward, he tries to explain that he thought his wife was with him. So much for "Till death do us part." Bausch's stories zero in on the details -- the drink after work, the way we speak to our intimates -- masterfully using them to show how love gets yet more complicated as we haul our baggage into middle age. David Gates's Wonders of the Invisible World (Knopf) also addresses the heart's regression into ignorance. In "The Bad Thing," an overeducated couple struggles to adapt to exurban life, turning their manic energies on each other. "The country," as in-the-know New Yorkers call rural retreats, is hardly good to Gates's characters. At his Pennsylvania farmhouse, the narrator of the title story learns his wife is leaving him. "You're going to have to be drinking for two for a while," she tells him. Such is the protocol of New Yorkers' break-ups.

Melissa Bank's compulsively likable The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking) also takes place in the Big Apple, and it also involves a break-up or two. In seven witty stories about a Manhattan publishing lackey named Jane Rosenal, Bank captures the coming-of-age Zeitgeist that women's magazines salivate over -- yet she manages to rise above the form's simplistic tendencies. As we progress through the book's interconnected stories, we watch and grow to love Jane. She falls out of love with her brother and into love with an older, problematic man, eventually meeting, perhaps, The One. Bliss Broyard covers somewhat similar territory in her charming debut, My Father, Dancing (Knopf), but she focuses more exclusively on the murkiness of father-daughter relationships. Though she does not reuse characters in the way Bank does, Broyard's stories are linked thematically. And, like Bank's, they show how powerfully a smattering of remembered incidents could tell our lives' stories.

Finally, Martin Amis's Heavy Water and Other Stories (Harmony) ought to give even the grumpiest of readers a laugh. The titles alone -- from "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" to "The Janitor from Mars" -- should do the job, but one story bears particular mention. In "Career Move," Amis inverts the current literary world, so that poets fax off their poems to glitzy film agents and are flown around the world to preview the dramatization of a recent villanelle. After the past year, during which an astonishing six short-story collections hit the New York Times bestseller list, perhaps he ought to have tipped his sardonic hat to story writers.

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