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Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
by Larry Dark (Editor)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385493584, Paperback)Some readers anxiously monitor each year's O. Henry anthology like doctors taking vital signs at a bedside, looking for clues to the current state of the American short story. Good news: the patient is alive and well--it's officially time to stop monitoring her pulse. Chosen by this year's prize jury (Sherman Alexie, Lorrie Moore, and, oddly enough, Stephen King), the three top winners are a satisfying mix of psychological realism and mild formal innovation. Best of all, they are as different from one another as chalk from cheese. Those looking for "trends" may come away disappointed, but anyone in search of a good solid read will find plenty to choose from here.
The year's first-prize pick is Peter Baida's "A Nurse's Story," a quiet, moving tale that manages to skirt sentimentality by possessing that rare literary gift, perfect pitch. "A good death. That's what everyone wants," longtime nurse Mary McDonald tells us, but Baida's story serves instead as a tribute to a good life--and all the other lives it ripples out to affect. The second-prize winner is a more unsettling and ambitious fiction, Cary Holladay's "Merry-Go-Sorry." Ostensibly about the rape and murder of three little boys, it somehow encompasses putative satanism, teenage alienation, hopeless love, grief, affliction, mystery, and everything else that makes us all human. The word merry-go-sorry "means a story with good news and bad," the accused killer's mother tells us, "joy and sorrow mixed together..." Holladay's story is indeed a merry-go-sorry, and in its juxtaposition of despair and hope it reminds us that, as in the wake of an Arkansas storm, sometimes "what's beautiful happens by accident." Rounding out the three prizewinners is a story by Alice Munro, a writer who deserves every prize extant and maybe a few not even thought of yet. Her "Save the Reaper" loosely reworks Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," but instead of a savage Southern parable, she produces what Lorrie Moore calls "a kind of pagan prayer," shot through with love, loss, mourning, and death.
Standouts from the rest of this collection include the splendid rodeo fiction "The Mud Below," by Annie Proulx, George Saunders's bizarre, tragic, and sidesplitting "Sea Oak," and something everyone either really really loves or really really hates, David Foster Wallace's footnote-enhanced "The Depressed Person." (This reviewer thinks it's funny, sad, and brilliant in an unrestrained and very Wallacean way.) As always, there are a few stories here that the clients in Saunders's male strip bar might rate "Stinker," but overall the miss-to-hit ratio is surprisingly low. Another year, another lively--and impressively vital--anthology. --Mary Park
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:45 -0400)
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