Eight years after O. Henry, the author of the beloved story “The Gift of the Magi,” died, in 1918, his admirers inaugurated an annual award intended to “strengthen the art of the short story.” For one hundred years, O. Henry Prize jurors, under varying selection criteria and publishing houses, have selected the best stories published that year in American and Canadian periodicals. But in 1918 as now, the short story holds an ambiguous place in American literature: it is easy to think of them as mini-novels, quick diversions tossed into the far reaches of The New Yorker or Harper’s. The O. Henrys can seem like the curios in my grandmother’s China hutch—some are nice, and some are less so, but who knows how they got there?
Yet the writer Andre Dubus emphasized the short story’s versatility among the major forms of literature, saying that “the short story is much closer to the poem than the novel”; it moves between the more expansive forms of narrative and the compression of the ballad or the lyric. This year’s twenty O. Henry Prize Stories, released last month and edited by Laura Furman, place the poetic qualities of the short story on full display.
“The Tomb of Wrestling,” by Jo Ann Beard
“She struck her attacker on the head with a shovel, a small one she normally kept in the car for moving things off the highway.” So begins the strongest story of 2018’s collection. The main character, Joan, appears in a moment of crisis: an intruder is raiding her kitchen after nearly strangling her to death with a yardstick (we don’t know why). The storyline is not linear. It begins at the tip of the shovel—where, no doubt, both Joan’s eyes and the eyes of her attacker are riveted—and flows outward in all directions. Joan’s mind works at hyperspeed as she thinks of the life she could lose; time is “swirling,” an effect like pouring paint into a bucket “and giving it one stir.”
“It’s unbelievable, the small details you notice,” Joan says, and, for Jo Ann Beard, not one detail of the resulting portrait is superfluous.
“It’s unbelievable, the small details you notice,” she says, and, for Jo Ann Beard, not one detail of the resulting portrait of Joan’s life is superfluous: Her ex-husband taught her to swing a hammer in an art gallery years ago, in the exact way she now holds her impromptu weapon. She measures her dog’s tail (the dog that will help defeat her attacker) in the morning with the yardstick that nearly kills her later. Joan always wanted to be a painter, but she studied art history instead. Now, in what could be her last moments, her mind conjures out of nowhere a painting by Magritte: a man staring into a mirror reflecting the back of his head.
A metaphor? Yes, but it’s more than that. The narration jumps into the attacker’s head; Joan smashes the shovel into the back of his skull. It is a deeply satisfying blow, both within the story itself and as a crack at “the strange notions of the surrealists.” Beard’s story resists the temptation to engage in literary surrealism for its own sake: what is truly strange, and yet vividly true to life, in “The Tomb of Wrestling” is not the manipulations of the artist, but Joan’s life-and-death struggle and the ways her mind moves in the midst of it. Beard works from crisis to comprehension, and, from a single swing of a shovel, she uncovers a life.
“Stop ’n’ Go,” by Michael Parker
A story in just two paragraphs, Parker’s “Stop ’n’ Go” proves just how different the approach of the short story is from that of the novel. “Maybe I have outlived time,” the narrator, a veteran, remarks as he describes his morning routine in small-town Delaware and ends up, twenty lines later, in a flashback of a winter battle in France in World War II. Although the story is framed by a mid-Atlantic sunrise, time has frozen for the anonymous man. He drives to the gas station slowly, his movements brittle and his tone bitter, refusing to allow the natural friction of life to begin the thaw. Parker displays an almost impressionistic sense for depicting a scene so tragically familiar to many veterans and their families. The short story, in Parker’s hands, does not attempt to reach into the heart of a man in the way a novel might—because what story could reach someone so imprisoned inside himself? Instead, Parker succeeds by framing the edges of a clouded mind to allow a glimpse inside.
“Queen Elizabeth,” by Brad Felver
Some stories in this collection make the mistake of attempting to force a more expansive, novelistic approach into a few pages. Brad Felver’s “Queen Elizabeth,” for example, is a story of lost love centered around the (overbearingly metaphorical) death of an old bur oak on the husband’s farm. Fine, but Felver over-articulates plot, metaphor, and the backgrounds of his characters. Gus, a carpenter, is Midwestern to his core; his wife, Ruth, is from the East coast. We hear a few too many times that he is poor and likes to work with his hands—and that she is not that way at all. The love between the two grows and dies just as the tree does, and the story asks—you guessed it—whether Ruth and Gus’s love can take on a new form just as wood takes on a new shape in the desks that Gus builds.
Felver, himself a proud Ohioan, is accustomed to taking long views, writing of stoic Midwestern characters with “quietly deep-seeded resentments,” which become more significant as time passes. Perhaps because of space constraints, however, these characters tend toward stereotype: “Was this just the easy contempt that New Englanders reserve for Midwesterners?” Ruth thinks when Gus meets her father. Gus mourns for Ruth by simply building desks for decades—as, we are expected to respond, a strong, silent man of his background would do.
And it is the same with his use of images: the common short-story technique of employing recurring objects to create meaning (such as the tree, and the wood that comes from it) can be abused. This is where Felver falls short of the great, plainspoken storytellers of today’s middle America: Richard Ford, Denis Johnson, and Louise Erdrich, in their stories set in the Midwest, do not invoke the same old clichés of people shaped by the unchanging landscape, but transform the narrative terrain by creating vibrant characters who transform our view of the world around them. Their most effective tool in cutting away the crust of stereotypes about the region is voice.
“How We Eat,” by Mark Jude Poirier
The final scene achieves what I had thought impossible, reviving the trope of the chivalrous knight—with a sixth-grader in soiled shorts.
The narrator is en route to the thrift store with his mother and sister: “I’m twelve, so it’s 1992.” Trent and his sister, Lizzie, should be in school. Instead, they’re rifling through the pockets of castoff jeans at a thrift store, trying to find enough cash so that Brenda (their mother, though they are not allowed to call her that) will reward them with a burger from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. That’s how they eat. Trent is the hero of the story, and perhaps the strongest character in the entire collection. The final scene achieves what I had thought impossible, reviving the trope of the chivalrous knight—with a sixth-grader in soiled shorts running down the dusty shoulder of an Arizona highway to save his sister, who’s been abandoned at the Goodwill they canvassed after lunch. It’s by far the most painful story in the collection to read (despite a gruesome re-imagining of the effects of the atomic bomb in Viet Dinh’s “Lucky Dragon”), and the one that reveals the strength of the form in the way it captures individuals in their character-defining moments. Trent’s story is the cross-section of a man; when he recounts it, an unknown number of years later, he speaks in the present tense. It is a searing story, perfectly framed. Poirier understands that it has taken Trent time to grow into the action that defined him.
Where the O. Henry Prize stories of 2018 excel, they do so, as Dubus sensed, poetically. Jamil Jan Kochai’s “Nights in Logar” is a lyrical account of a young American chasing a dog through Logar, Afghanistan. Jenny Zhang’s “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” nearly achieves a vision of a grandmother who dominates her children with her overweening love. And Jo Lloyd’s “The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies,” a rare work of historical fiction (for this collection, at least), satirizes a British mine owner in a triumph of dialect that would have made Jonathan Swift proud.
In the short story, as Beard puts it: “Now was also then was also another then.” The memories that matter acquire a poetry of their own—and the defining moments of a life are always present tense.