Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
It takes just one great story to create a convert, and for me, the story was Lorrie Moore’s ”People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the single most thrilling piece of fiction I read last year. Moore’s tale of a mother watching her toddler endure treatment for a possibly terminal cancer was everything that stories of illness are never supposed to dare to be: unblinking, funny, coolheaded, terrifying, and completely free of sentimentality. By the time I finished reading (and rereading) it, I was hooked, once again, on the possibilities of the American short story.
There couldn’t be a better time, it turns out, to become an addict. Moore’s superb 1998 collection ”Birds of America” (now out in paperback) surprised everyone by flying up the best-seller lists; so did this spring’s mammoth anthology and favored graduation gift ”The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” edited by John Updike. Emerging writers who once would have earned their reputations with novels are doing so with volumes of short stories: Witness Nathan Englander’s ”For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and Melissa Bank’s ”The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing.”
Let’s skip the armchair analysis of the reasons for the short story’s renaissance in popularity (shorter attention spans, TV-bred impatience with long-form narrative, or this year’s all-purpose sociobabble signifier, premillennial anxiety). It’s the surge in quality that’s so astounding. For a whirlwind survey of what’s out there, the place to start may be with one of the best-known annual anthologies of short fiction: the just-published Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards, judged by Moore, Stephen King, and Sherman Alexie (”Smoke Signals”).
This year’s spectacular collection is rich with stories that are both funny and despairing (check out David Foster Wallace’s ”The Depressed Person” and George Saunders’ ”Sea Oak”), and others that take on topics ranging from triple murder and pregnancy by rape to a girls’ soccer game and an actor’s dying stab at stardom by playing Richard Nixon. ”Prize Stories ”is eerie, bloody, chancy, and immensely alive to the genre’s exhilarating unpredictability.
For a real joyride, though, seek out some of the dozens of single-author collections currently in bookstores. Surfing a great storyteller’s magic carpet through a dozen stories is like witnessing a master jazz musician take his own improvisatory genius to height after height. When you find a writer whose voice you love, there’s nothing like it — not even a greatest-hits collection.