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Book Review

Year’s best stories have staying power

By Joseph Peschel
October 15, 2010

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Since 1978, when Shannon Ravenel became the series editor, an annual guest editor has had the final say on which stories will find a cozy and prestigious home in the annual “Best American Short Stories’’ anthology. Katrina Kenison succeeded Ravenel, and, in 2007, Heidi Pitlor became the series editor. Her tenure began inauspiciously when she chose Stephen King as guest editor. The following year, Salman Rushdie guest-edited a fine collection, but last year’s volume, its stories chosen by Alice Sebold, proved disappointing.

This time Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo made the final selections, and, with only a couple of exceptions, the best stories in this year’s collection would be great in any year. The collection is as good as the Rushdie edition, and one of the best of this young century. Most of Russo’s selections are steeped in realism, but a few venture into science fiction and one into magic realism. Russo chose five stories from The New Yorker and The Atlantic, but the other 15 stories come from old and distinguished literary magazines like The New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Paris Review, with seven stories from young sprouts: Tin House and McSweeney’s.

These stories are arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name, not by relative excellence, but usually I dub one story the best. This time I can’t; I jumped around in my reading, and felt that each story, whether about personal loss, betrayal, love, or suicide, was better than the last. Some are funny, some are sad or a magnificent combination. If I read them in a different order, I’d feel the same way.

In Ron Rash’s “The Ascent,’’ the child of poor, drug-addicted parents finds a downed airplane and steals jewelry from its dead passengers. The parents sell the booty to support their habit with devastating results. Jill McCorkle’s Hannah, in “PS,’’ now done seeing her marriage counselor, writes a parting message telling him how incompetent he is and tries to set him straight on a few things. In Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched,’’ a champion poker player is getting psychological help from a reformed gambler.

In Lauren Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds’’ a group of war correspondents — including a lone woman — is held hostage by a vicious Nazi sympathizer as German troops approach. Wayne Harrison’s “Least Resistance’’ tells the story of a 33-year-old Christ figure of a mechanic who can perform miracles on ailing cars, but doesn’t realize his wife and his 18-year-old employee have betrayed him. Brendan Mathews depicts the love lives of circus performers in “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened With the Lion Tamer.’’ And in Rebecca Makkai’s “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,’’ a college literature teacher on vacation is talked into duck hunting and accidentally shoots an albatross. She’s doomed to bad luck — the “ ‘Your career is over’ kind, the ‘Why aren’t you wearing your engagement ring?’ kind.’’ Makkai’s work has appeared in the two previous “Best American’’ editions.

Other superb stories include tales by Karen Russell, Charles Baxter, Kevin Moffett, Jennifer Egan, Wells Tower, and Maggie Shipstead.

In a departure from recent tradition, the editors have cited, in the appendix of this anthology, more than the usual 100 Distinguished Stories. Of the stories on that list, Russo says you’ll find some you’ll prefer to the ones he chose and you should “search these out and read them.’’ One of those stories is Richard Bausch’s “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife,’’ which should have been included in the collection proper. Still, this is a fine collection that will stand up well against the best of the guest-edited “Best American’’ anthologies.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his website at josephpeschel.com.

THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2010 Edited by Richard Russo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 421 pages; $14.95