"Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards" celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with this month's publication of 20 new short stories chosen by William Abrahams. Abrahams, a senior editor at E. P. Dutton and award-winning co-biographer of George Orwell, has served as editor of the anthology since 1967. With his selection of this year's winners, he confirms that his tastes in fiction are truly eclectic, an editorial propensity that enriches us all.
The O. Henry first prize goes, deservedly, to Leo E. Litwak for his story "The Eleventh Edition." The protagonist here is young Russell Hansen, a poor boy from Iron Mountain, Mich., who strikes out on his own, away from his "bitter and alcoholic" father, ending up at Wayne University in Detroit. He finds this to be a most comfortable home, and for three years he studies with a Professor Diekman before entering the graduate program, enrolling in whatever courses Diekman teaches. Litwak writes with the sort of clarity that lends lyricism to his prose:
"Professor Diekman was a bent little man. He was slightly twisted to the right, as if he were lecturing on the run, hurling words back at his pursuers.
"We learned about Guelphs, Ghibellines, Dante, Machiavelli, the painters, the sculptors, the craftsmen, the poets, the guilds.
"He operated in great swoops. He lighted on a detail, developed it, then leapt elsewhere. . . . There was nothing so odd that he couldn't find a link to our experience. He clarified what was opaque, made coherent what seemed alien and terrifying."
Hansen lives in a boarding house. In the next room over is elderly Frank Walsh, a man whose present-day memory is quickly vanishing but who can recollect 50 years past with ease. There is a tragicomic exchange where Walsh knocks on Hansen's door on several occasions to introduce himself, forgetting that the two have long since met.
This sort of neighbor proves distracting for young Russ, now earnestly aspiring to an academic career in philosophy under Diekman's tutelage. As Hansen works himself into the professor's inner circle of favored students, old Walsh's condition worsens to an alarming degree, and here Litwak presents us with the central theme of the story: Can the good professor's cerebral life "make coherent" an all too-real and visceral death?
Litwak illuminates this question with true light of his own.
One of the strengths of this anthology lies in exposing its readers not only to established writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Mathiessen and Alice Adams but also to emerging writers as well. Two of the finest stories here are the first published works by young authors Marilyn Sides and Devon Jersild.
In Sides' story, "The Island of the Map Maker's Wife," we encounter C. M. Descotes, "a rather young woman" who owns and runs a shop that specializes in the trading of antique picture maps. On a tip from William, an older ex-lover and fellow map expert, Descotes flies out to Amsterdam to acquire some very high-quality merchandise. What she finds there surpasses all her expectations:
"The work could only have been done by the greatest illuminator of maps in the 17th Century, Margarethe Blau, the wife of the master printer Theodor Blau. The long spine of the Andes Frau Blau has rendered in the finest golden tincture of myrrh with the western slope reflecting the setting sun in a delicate pink wash of cochineal. Several stands of trees, in a thousand varying shades of green, play the vast rain forest of Brazil. Rivers have been threaded through the continent in indigo banded with magenta. The southern pampas wave their bluish leaves and the golden stalks. Red lead, the color of dried blood, shadows the double cathedral towers of Spanish settlements. Surrounding the land, showing off its gentle brightness, the sea is stippled like shot silk in dark indigo and a wash of lighter-blue bice."
On closer inspection, Descotes notices an enticing flaw in this otherwise perfect map the dealer does not wish to sell. She must have it. In her attempts to acquire it, we witness some of the most passionate writing in the book. This is a finely wrought story, a tale that concludes with vivid and exotic heat.
Devon Jersild's story "In Which John Imagines His Mind as a Pond" is another sensual beauty detailing the libidinal struggle of John, a happily married man in love with another woman. John turns to meditation to aid him in letting go his desire.
Jersild's language is cool and spare, her details muted, a style that serves her heart-thumping main character well, taking him, and us, to an ending that unfolds itself naturally, with a deliberate and excusable echo of James Joyce's "The Dead."
An interesting feature new to the O. Henry Awards is a section entitled "Biographies and Some Comments by the Authors." An experiment in the 1989 edition, this section is now on its way to becoming a standard part of the anthology. This reviewer turned to each author after finishing his or her story and before reading the next. While the adage "If your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt" bears great truth, it also does not hurt to hear a writer's musings and intent after the fact. Take Joyce Carol Oates and her story, "Heat," one of the most memorable in this collection. This is the opening sentence:
"It was midsummer, the heat rippling above the macadam roads. Cicadas screaming out of the trees and the sky like pewter, glaring."
From this compelling starting point, firmly grounded in the senses, our adult narrator goes on to recount the day her childhood friends--two identical-twin 11-year-old sisters--are murdered. "Heat" works on many levels, sinking deeply into the reader's consciousness where it intends to stay. It is almost balm to turn to the authors' comments section and hear its creator behind fiction's drawn curtain.
Oates: "For the past two years, I have been experimenting with 'tone clusters' in prose, especially in short fiction: The tone of 'Heat' is that of a piano used as a nonvibrating instrument, without the use of the pedal, in which chords struck and lifted do not resonate or echo but exhibit an eerie disconnection with one another. This tone seemed to be perfect to express a narrative viewed through the prismatic lens of time, by way of which all events seem equidistant: thus the 'floating' paragraphs, seemingly disconnected and without transition in many instances."
Another story high on the unforgettable list is Joanne Greenberg's "Elizabeth Baird." Greenberg, author of 10 novels and three short-story collections, has polished a real jewel here. The story takes place in the American South and the South Pacific through the years of World War II. Its main character is Elizabeth Baird, who "had been born with a very slight cerebral lesion and it produced brief pause in her speech and the movements of her body, so that she seemed always to be hesitating, fawn-like, before the disclosure of her thought or will."
Elizabeth's mother is a strong-willed, flamboyant woman. Her father is an alcoholic pediatrician, who dies when Elizabeth is 14. Greenberg handles the passage of time deftly, taking us through the Depression, to Elizabeth's nursing training, to her becoming an Army nurse en route to Hawaii by sea when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. She is sent to the Philippines, taken prisoner by invading armies and marched to where the heart of the story takes place: a woman's camp near Luzon. Here Greenberg poetically reveals the unique power of Elizabeth Baird's birth defect; her blessing, her curse.
Not all the stories in this year's O. Henry collection are as strong as those mentioned. Their number is few, however, and what they lack in execution they make up for in originality of voice and vision.
In his brief but insightful introduction, Abrahams examines the scene of the contemporary American short story. He points out that these stories must continue to be published and read, a service many large commercial magazines no longer can afford. Thus "the ascendancy of the little magazines," the literary quarterlies and journals from which 15 of this year's 20 award winners come.
Abrahams credits the abundance of high-quality fiction to "an American institution: the creative writing program--or course, or workshop--at universities and colleges and in private enclaves and conferences all over the country. It has proved itself, for better or worse, the most enduring influence upon the short story in the past twenty-five years."
This year, his 23rd at the helm of the O. Henry Awards, Abrahams continues to demonstrate his own good and lasting influence.