Monday, September 16, 2013

River of Toys – Edward Allen

Perhaps it’s just that I've finally reached this decade in the anthology where I find that the year could be coloring my perception of this story.
Yes, I think that plays a large part.
I read this story twice.  Once several weeks ago – as I had finished BASS 1989, and decided to read the intro to BASS 1990 and doing so, not feeling like writing anything yet – I went ahead and read this story.

I read it again several days ago, and on the second pass I enjoyed it much more.  I really took the time to absorb the words.
There is a passage -below that really makes it a fine story:

"I like to close my eyes and keep walking, see how far I can walk without opening them.  You can feel the night.  The night is a thing.  It’s harmless.  It has a shape.  It hangs over everything I hope to get back to, over my going home from work, over the food I choose to eat, over the books I tell myself I should be reading.  The night is something completely without seriousness.  Stars dance in the sky, whether you can see them or not, even on nights so think with moisture that people who smoke cigarettes can’t light matches. "

Reading this passage, pulls me back to my early adulthood – a place that I feel most of these stories will take me.  As most of the stories and entries on this blog for the 80s dealt with my high schools days and my home life, the 90s will bring my entry into true independence.

The walking into night passage above is very special to me.
There were many times at Norwich where I found myself walking quietly back to my room.  I would have been in an academic building or most likely in the library – making my best efforts at studying and failing miserably at it.
The cool night air of a Vermont winter or the warmer spring nights held a special silence that left such an imprint on my memory that I can place myself there today.

I lived in a state of blissful confusion then – (maybe I still am today…) and the night walks back to my room acted as a sort of tunnel between dimensions/worlds/atmospheres. 
And then we flash forward to more night (actually early morning walking – done in the late 90s and thousands of miles away along a dung covered road leading out of Negresti.

I would have risen at 3 in the morning.  
Made a strong coffee.  
Stomach turning and turning – nerves.  
Checking my bag, once, twice and then again.
Slipping out of the dormitory, walking out of the school grounds, the smell of burning trash, burning corn husks, horse manure on the streets.
The crisp moist spring air.
Check my watch once – and then again.
Quicken my step.
Light a smoke.
Pull my hat tighter.
Walk a bit faster.
Look behind me.
Hear a dog bark, a gate close, a rooster crow.
Another joins me towards the train station just 50 feet behind me.
Who do I think I am?
  Where am I going?
    Where am I today?
Next year?

That was then – and it’s still today. Never stop asking.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Best American Short Stories 1990

August 1990 - The beginning.
This collection contains stories published in 1989, read by the series and volume editor in ’89 and 1990 with a publication of the collected stories occurring in November of ‘90.
I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about this volume of stories.   It’s the date stamped across the cover that draws my emotions I think more than the stories within (at least at this point).   
1990 was 23 years ago.
23 years.
I’ll be 65 years old in 23 years.
I find it so hard to digest.  Where have those years gone? It really is incredible.
It is within those 23 years beginning in 1990 that I have lived the best years of my life.
You see, in 1990, the raw materials that eventually became my life today started to gather and construct themselves – slowly being shaped by forces visible and invisible – some only to make themselves known many years later.
That year I stepped out from under the wings of my parents and entered a new world  (and thinking of my own son doing this, breaks my heart).
I found new wings to shelter under and new companions to find comfort in.
I found myself in those early months  of my freedom sitting  alone, in a classroom, at a desk in the library, in my bed, face buried in a pillow, stifling sobs and struggling to mask the tears.  I cried for my past and my future.  Cried for the mistakes I was making and crying for the mistakes I was going to make.
Mistakes became my new friends – for I made many and there was no one to blame but myself.
Mistakes that sit with me today. Mistakes that weigh heavy on my conscience because it is I that created them and must shoulder the burden.
And still 23 years have passed.  23 years to the week that I set out on the path I now find myself on.
Again, I feel a strength, a strength that I can summon so many of these memories simply by holding a book stamped with a date.
And I read what I have written above and I see that what I have used as a point to illustrate these 23 years is the idea of “mistakes”.
But above me talking about all the mistakes I made, I clearly wrote about how the years have been the best ever.  So, how could a described life of mistakes be the best?
Is it that I have seen these mistakes as lessons? Perhaps - I’m still trying to figure that out.

Let’s quickly look at a few selected quotes from the volume editor Richard Ford.
-“A warming chestnut snugged into the heart of many introductions of this very sort protests that a virtual cornucopia of wonderful stories – far too many for one slender volume – made final choices nearly impossible.  This was not precisely my experience in 1989.”  

-“Unarguably, writing short stories – a minor contribution to the saga of mankind- is something most people can’t do very well.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s harder than it looks, and wonderful stories do see like little miracles.”  
-“Art’s that way – free.”
-“I only know I’ve made no effort to “stamp’ this volume as my own,  I’ve meant not to set the world straight about the contemporary short story, or show people what they ought to be reading – only what they may like.  The selector or his method isn’t the star here.  It’s not my collection, it’s the writers’.  And although a skeptical reader might say these stories are bluntly predictable given their blunt chooser, their chooser has done his best not only to find stories he can stand up for, but also to put himself out of business with his choices.”  
-“So finally we get to the back of the garage, the nuts and bolts.  There are not a lot of wonderful short stories published in America year to year, and partly in view of that rarity I have sought to publish here only the best I could find, with no attempt to distribute evenly the number of men to women, the number of small magazines to large ones; no attempt to include some percentage of gays or Chicanos or African Americans or Jews.  I have not tried to encourage younger writers nor discourage Southerners, West Coast writers, dyslexics, New Agers, Christians or Viet Vets.  I did not read these manuscripts “blind,” as some of my predecessors have, but I trust myself to honor the basic primacy of the work to its author.”

I read the introduction twice.  Once as an introduction and a second time to pull the above quotes and think a bit about why I decided to include them here.  
I appreciate the Ford puts right out there the fact that there really aren’t a lot of good short stories published each year.  I think that still holds true today.  Ford picks stories that he feels the reader might like – but of course this is through his filter – and I have a little trouble believing his statement that he hasn’t made an effort to stamp this volume as his own – for with that statement and the other that follow, he has done just that. Not reading them blind – that too I believe can only color his selections a bit closer to shades of his favor.    

He read 250 stories for this volume and selected 20 from a nice variety of magazines.  You will also note as I read through this volume that he selected two stories from Richard Bausch and Alice Munro.  It will be nice to read selections from old friends such as Madison Smartt Bell, Elizabeth tallent and Joy Williams.

This is the last volume that Shannon Ravenel will serve as the series editor.  Shannon did a wonderful job as series editor since 1978 and I’m sad to see her go.  She will be replaced by another competent editor - and I look forward to reading selections that are passed to various volume editors.
I’ll always cherish and remain starstruck by this letter she wrote after I asked her about her work with John Gardner.  I’ve attached the letter below.