I have finally returned to my attempt to read all one hundred of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. At the rate I’m going, it will probably take me the next one hundred years.
In his preface, John Updike, admits that his purpose was not to compile the best stories in the world, or even in the United States, but the best uniquely American stories. The definition of a uniquely American story is certainly a subject that could be debated ad nauseam. Americans are like people all over the world, are we not? There are American farmers just as there are German farmers. Could it be our feet? I have had people in other countries tell me they can always spot American tourists. We’re the only bozos who wear tennis shoes nearly everywhere when they are clearly meant only to be worn on a tennis court. Pardonnez moi!
But of course, Updike was not referring to our shoes or our manner of farming. What do you think he defined as “a central strand in America’s collective story?” Yup, immigration. If you’re an American, the ancestors who brought you here often came with nothing thus their lives were “scramble and survival.” Some people maintained strong ties to old world traditions and some did not. How immigrants reacted to their new realities are in the stories told by their children and grandchildren.
Saul Bellow was a writer primarily known for his connection to Chicago, a city I lived in for almost three years in my early twenties. Chi-town is a prototypical working class town/city. Unlike the old money families on the East Coast, its millionaires are rough, generally unscrupulous men with ties to the mob. This was particularly true during Bellow’s childhood.
In 1979 he published a story called “The Silver Dish.” In this story Woody Selbst’s father believes abandoning and then betraying his family is the right thing to do because it makes his children (particularly his son) stronger. He’s a con man, a liar and a grifter and yet people always seem willing to forgive him and even give him another chance. Like their neighbors, the Selbsts are recent immigrants for whom “money was a vital substance” and Christian charity came with a price, paid by the samaritan. Selbst is confused about everything in life; the hypocrisies of religion, the complications of romantic relationships, and in particular, why he can’t seem to condemn his father. Particularly on the last chance he has: his father’s deathbed. Indeed the story begins with the question “What do you do about death?” My reaction to this story was similar to my reaction to Updike’s own story “Gesturing”: Beautifully written but deeply disconcerting.
There’s gotta be a more cheerful story in this collection! Let’s see (from Updike’s intro) there’s “The Peach Stone:” The burial of a child builds to a redemptive affirmation. I’ll pass on that one for now.
How about Edward Fenton’s “Burial in the Desert” I don’t even have to read the synopsis. No, no, no.
Then there’s Lorrie Moore’s: “You are Ugly Too”: …the heroine’s nearly consummated desire to push off the edge of a skyscraper, a man dressed in a marked-up body stocking, dressed as a woman.
That one might be cheerful. What do you think?