Ensiform's Reviews > Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards

Prize Stories 1997 by Larry Dark
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Dec 17, 2011

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bookshelves: fiction, stories

Some good and some bad. Admirable for the most part, even if there are some questionable choices here.

"City Life," Mary Gordon. A woman grew up among slovenly alcoholic parents. She distances her adult life from them, becoming, apparently, a typical upperclass wife with a rather pronounced zest for order. Then she encounters her slovenly, impaired downstairs neighbor, who brings back all her old memories, and she starts to sympathize with him. Despite the award, I thought this story a bit simplistic in its structure, rather binary. The writing was excellent, and the main character’s phobia was believable enough, but I just didn’t find her madness very creepy.

"The Falls," George Saunders. Morse, a self-berating office worker, walks home, ruminating comically on his unremarkable life. Also walking along is a haughty nut with poetic leanings. When they both see two girls in a canoe heading for disaster on the falls, it’s Morse who jumps in to save them. A great story: Morse’s rapid-fire dryly droll monologue hides some serious questions. Is Morse a hero because he knows himself? Because he wants to be one? Because at heart he’s a good person? Because he’s a humble but noble building block of society? Brilliant.

"The Talk Talked Between Worms," Lee K. Abbott. A man ruminates on his father, who saw an alien spaceship crash in Roswell, communed with an alien, and went slightly mad a result. A powerful, if a bit confusing, piece about how the unknown can turn our lives inside out --- or how, if we are more grounded in the good things of life, it can merely vindicate us. Possibly.

"On With the Story," John Barth. A meta-textual postmodern tale: a woman going through a divorce reads in an in-flight magazine a synchronistic story about a woman undergoing a similar crisis. The story’s author (sitting beside her) makes some remarks about temporal relativity, including Zeno’s Seventh Paradox and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And Barth critiques his narrative as well as the author’s remarks. A fun experiment in the dissection of reality and fiction.

"The Love of a Good Woman," Alice Munro, 63 pages. Some boys find the body of a local man in his car at the bottom of a river. Then, years later, a nurse hears a story about how the man may have been murdered, from the murderer’s wife. Some very rich descriptions, but I was disappointed in the whole. It was as if each scene was building up to something which never came. The boys’ life histories were given for no reason, as they figure in no way in the later events; it’s as if Munro started one story and began another. I also thought Munro tried too hard to write from a “boy’s standpoint.” In any case I found the nurse, Enid, to be a timorous, unpleasant and selfish character, like the women who marry imprisoned serial killers.

"The Twa Corbies,” Carolyn Cooke. A retired professor spends time with his brother, who is mentally a toddler, and his sister-in-law, who is manically cheerful, and dying. A brief and quite grim picture of the ways life can come to an end before death. Strong, subtle writing: the narrator’s cold, detached analysis opens him to judgment even as he describes his subjects.

"Catface," Arthur Bradford. A man gets a succession of roommates, ending with Catface, a guy who has a cat face, and meets a woman who keeps mutant puppies. A surrealistic, funny, minimalist tale, marked by straight-faced and dry humor. The story’s fun and funny, but I don’t think 27-year-old Bradford is an exceptional craftsman. In fact, it seems merely a better-written example of the kind of wink-wink bizarro humor one often found in prep school magazines —-- clever and enticing, but not meaning much.

"Dancing After Hours," Andre Dubus. A female bartender, insulated and lacking in intimacy, opens up a bit when a paralyzed man and his assistant come to her bar. I found the prose boring initially: blunt, overly detailed descriptions, at the same time vague in terms of reference points. But the characters are fleshed out once the setup is over, and it’s a moving, troubling story.

"The Royal Palms,” Matthew Klam. A man goes on vacation with his wife, with whom he’s sexually estranged, and they meet an attractive couple. The ensuing vibes help break the couple’s tension. A bit disjointed; the story starts with a chase that serves little purpose, and the whole doesn’t have any climax to speak of. It’s a pleasant enough tale, if somewhat bland.

"The Lipstick Tree,” Kiana Davenport. Eva, a woman from a primitive tribe in New Guinea, becomes a modern woman, leaving her clan and heritage behind forever. A unimpressive, inoffensive story, written in a sort of dull National Geographic style, yet without a firm voice, quite unsubtle (“Eva wondered if this was her future --- a life of squatting in the bush,” etc, etc), and without much drama. Catch that delicate symbolism of the name “Eva”? Bland, boring.

"The Red House,” Ian MacMillan. An under-privileged boy in a rural area, abused by his father, has a powerful love of words; rebuilding an old house, he meets a sympathetic girl, and both events bolster his burgeoning sense of self worth. Beautiful, exact, rich prose; sweet & hopeful.

"Comfort," Mary Gaitskill. A man’s mother is in a bad car accident, and it widens the vast gap of understanding between him and his wife. A stark, real story about how two people can live together and alone, and the power of stress, both to unravel and bring together. Masterfully executed.
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