By Mark Harris
Updated November 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Best American Short Stories 1999

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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. And veterans like Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) are arguably doing their finest work in the short form: Proulx’s Close Range, a series of stories linked only by their brilliance and the unsparing Wyoming landscape where they take place, is the best volume of fiction I’ve read this year.

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). The surge in quality is what’s so astounding. For a whirlwind survey of what’s out there, the place to start may be with the two best-known annual anthologies of short fiction: the just-published Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards (Anchor, $11.95) and The Best American Short Stories 1999 (Houghton Mifflin, $27.50). The formats are similar — 20 or so stories chosen by guest editors — but nothing else is.

This year’s judge of The Best American Short Stories was novelist Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), and her selections are most immediately striking for their geographical diversity; more than half of Tan’s choices take place at least in part outside of the United States, and no fewer than four concern the culture clash between India (or Nepal) and Americans or the Americanized. Many of the stories are magnificent, in particular Ha Jin’s unnerving ”In the Kindergarten,” about a preschool in Communist China; the title story from Jhumpa Lahiri’s fine collection Interpreter of Maladies, about a cranky Indian-American couple and their smitten tour guide; and Hester Kaplan’s ”Live Life King-Sized,” about a young man desperate to keep his late mother’s resort hotel from failing. To read Tan’s picks is to appreciate the immensity of the topological and emotional terrain on which American writers can draw. But Tan shortchanges the humor, the darkness, the swerves into surrealism, and the energizing tabloid crackle that animate many of today’s best young fiction writers.

You’ll find all that and more in this year’s spectacular O. Henry collection, judged by Lorrie Moore, Stephen King, and Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals). 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 eerier, bloodier, chancier, and ultimately more alive to the genre’s exhilarating unpredictability. (Weird bonus: Alice Munro’s ”Save the Reaper,” one of two stories to appear in both books and a high point of her excellent 1998 collection The Love of a Good Woman, is radically different — and far better — in the O. Henry volume.)

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. Best: B+ O. Henry: A

THE WONDERS OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD David Gates (Knopf, $23) Whip-smart stories of rocky relationships and odd couplings from a Newsweek critic and novelist.

WHO’S IRISH? Gish Jen (Knopf, $22) Generational clashes and identity crises in Chinese-American families form the heart of eight warm, sardonically funny tales.

SONNY LISTON WAS A FRIEND OF MINE Thom Jones (Little, Brown, $23) Hard-slugging, brutal, sometimes riotous work by the Oliver Stone of short-story writers.

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, $24) A wild ride through a deranged, brilliant cortex (and 800 pages shorter than Infinite Jest).

WHO I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE Susan Perabo (Simon & Schuster, $20) All unhappy families are definitely not alike in Perabo’s debut, a collection of knockout versatility and wit.

THE WOMAN WHO CUT OFF HER LEG AT THE MAIDSTONE CLUB Julia Slavin (Holt, $22) The title story is far from the strangest in this oddball, fun-house-mirror head trip.

Episode Recaps

The Best American Short Stories 1999

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