The latest batch of O. Henry Prize Winners: disappointing. There was too much of that graduate school creative writing essence, so that the stories were the kind of stories that would come from writers writing for other writers while surrounded by writers; these stories were certainly not written for anonymous readers, or at least my sort, the one who has decided to sit down with a book of short stories for the evening after waiting tables in the faint hope that perhaps it will transport herself to the strange and distant fires burning within friends and strangers.
Still, there was creepy A.S. Byatt's "The Thing in the Forest," T. Coraghessan Boyle's amusing, slightly musical "Swept Away" and Anthony Doerr's almost-perfect tale "The Shell Collector," my only cavil: the author's unnecessary killing of a character in order to move his story along. Life-altering crises shouldn't be forced.
The anthology's last story, though, induces silent reverie and perhaps that's why the editors placed this magical realist stunner in the rear, so that the reader could shake off the relative pallidness of the other stories. I suppose you should go to your library and read it for yourself and judge it as your prejudices will guide you to judge it.
The fire in Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams", the destruction, reminds me of my parents, but in a roundabout way, which is not extraordinary since most ordinary things remind me of my parents in a roundabout way. At first I thought only of a mountain town in San Diego County that was famous for its apple pie, or at least the local news station made it out to be that way, a plaid-clad burp of humanity that I, in a school bus, had passed on my trip to camp one godawful summer, ill-prepared for the parentlessness of our collection of wind-blown pollen-dusted lodges and the proximity of females my age running around our unchaperoned cabin mixing the names of boys with brassieres sans ado (or panties).
The only thing more overwhelming was not a thing but a beingness: the wilderness, so much of it full of unnameable things for a child of suburbia. I could imply that it seemed to beseige us but the forest was not sinister, our sun-kissed guides were stalwart and, although the hiker's path appeared more like a tender cub-pawfallen trail than a deliberate demarcation of human progress by the U.S. Department of Forestry, we were not a troop of Hansels and Gretels, orphaned by abandonment. No, by traipsing these well-worn paths, we felt safe, knowing that many more have walked before us and that many would walk after us. These paths were true, we hoped, even as we stumped, pack-heavy, past fire-blackened goliaths lying twisted in open chaparral.
Later camp became a memory of a distant and strange country, another awkward event (as if it occurred over a few hours rather than a week) of adolescence, where I learned that girls took off their bras before going to bed. I think I would have remembered it that way for the rest of my life if southern California hadn't become blighted by manic fire a month or two ago.
Of course, I read the newspapers and studied their maps detailing the riotous paths the wind-swept fires ate into forest and surburbia. I saw the footage of that news van burning and the anchorman who had wept. Still, it took a short story a month later to really connect to what had happened.
It is sad, I mused only a few hours before I wrote this, lying on an afghan rug in my apartment, Jimmy asleep and the book flapped open over my vital organs. I did not really know until I read it in a book.
But what did I know when I thought of this? It was ephemeral. And although what I knew was trembling and fleet-footed like a deer through a burning kingdom, what I remembered remained. After my trip to New York only weeks ago, I called my parents to say hello but no one answered. A day later, my father called; I wasn't home. Jimmy said, You should call your parents. The fire got within a few miles of their house. The whole neighborhood was evacuated.
But I didn't call them, you see, it was enough to know that they were okay. We are the sort of people to not tell each other anything except at the last minute, things like, I'm visiting this city at this time or my phone is being disconnected and you won't have any way to reach me or your grandma died or I'm in love or I love you. I was fine with letting this familiar silence occupy the distance between them and me. They were alive; at that time, that was enough.
Now I don't know what is enough and I think that it is sad that a book and not a wildfire could guide me this way.
. . .
"But they hushed, all at once and quite abruptly, when he stood utterly still at center stage, his arms straight out from his shoulders, and went rigid and began to tremble with a massive inner dynamism. Nobody present had ever seen anyone stand so still and yet so strangely mobile. He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship's horn, the locomotive's lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moan-music of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever."--from Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams"