Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN: 0-395-92686-6
Katrina Kenison, emphasizing the process of story-reading in comparison to novels, opens Best American Short Stories by telling the reader, “Enjoy them one at a time, like chocolate truffles.” E.L. Doctorow’s introduction stresses the importance of the late Frank O’Connor’s theories, stating, “What makes a short story a distinct literary form, says O’Connor is ‘its intense awareness of human loneliness.’” Doctorow also compares today’s stories with those of the past, and of the (approximately) 140 stories he read for this collection, he concluded that today’s writers “are more disposed to the episodic than the epiphanic.” Furthermore, “Stories in this mode tend to be longer, their points of entry can be quite distant from their denouements, and their central problem is made quite explicit.”
        In such stories, things “happen.” In most, major turns of events bring on equally affecting reactions. Beautifully written “The Beautiful Days” by Michael Byers demonstrates the influences that melt Aldo’s state of grace. The tragedy of Ras (and his reaction to it) in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” by Annie Proulx, affects all in the small Wyoming countryside, then surprises every reader with its shocking ending. Geoffrey Becker’s “Blind Elvis” takes a look inside the protagonist’s view of his slight celebrity role, while Ron Carlson’s “The Ordinary Son” shows Reed’s isolation and exclusion in his family of geniuses. The discovery of Charles Luger’s Jewish soul in “The Gilgul of Park Avenue” by Nathan Englander puts a test on the characters’ somewhat “everyday” marriage, and the late Raymond Carver’s “Call If You Need Me” (discovered in the summer of 1999) also examines the complexity of love and marriage. In the contributors’ notes, Tess Gallagher mentions, in relation to Carver’s various stories, “Images and situations overlap and find different vantage points from which to approach what’s befallen a couple as they try to repair their marriage by taking time away for themselves in a rented house.”
        Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom” renders the complexity of Beina’s marriage to homosexual Baowen, and Jhumpa Lahiri dramatizes the sweetness of the narrator’s swift adjustment to the United States, his connection to the elderly Mrs. Croft, and later to his wife, Mala, who he married in Calcutta through an arranged marriage.
        “He’s at the Office” by Allan Gurganus, also an O’Henry Prize Story of 2000 and anthologized in New Stories From The South, 2000 demonstrates a son’s motivation to relieve the frustrations of his aging father’s dementia. “Good for the Soul” by Tim Gautreaux deals with the validity of a priest’s position in response to sin and redemption. Amy Bloom’s “The Story” begins by telling a story, then spirals into a story about telling a story, evolving into a sophisticated, mind-boggling tale.
        Cultural diversity and various topics and styles make this collection an interesting blend. One can read the collection in complete succession, but Katrina Kenison advises in her foreword to read each one individually, tackling projects in-between in order to grasp and savor each writer’s individual voice. And although each story is unique, each presents the single common subject underlying the short story: loneliness. As Mr. Doctorow states, “…the author’s awareness of loneliness is the literary dignity he grants his characters in spite of their circumstances…”