Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor present some of the best writers and their stories in this 100-year history of the “Best American Short Stories” series.
Moore acknowledges this collection goes toe-to-toe with John Updike’s “Best American Short Stories of the Century,” and she rightly boasts she got the best F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Unlike the Updike anthology where one story represented each year, these stories are selected from each decade since 1915.
Edna Ferber’s story from 1917, “The Gay Old Dog,” begins a showcase of 40 stories. Stories by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald hang on the pages of this book like Mona Lisas of early 20th-century American literature, and, with the inclusion of a stingingly funny story by Stanley Elkin, who taught at Washington University, Lisa grins. Stories by Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates constitute just a few more exhibits from the first part of book.
Latter day writers included are Charles Baxter, Benjamin Percy and Lauren Groff, among other fine American authors, as well as Canadian Alice Munro.
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In the first story, Ferber tells a serious and sometimes sardonic story about Jo Hertz, who promises his dying mother that he won’t marry until all three of his sisters do. Hemingway presents his famous story about Joe Butler’s dad, the crooked, alcoholic jockey and “swell guy” in “My Old Man.” In “Babylon Revisited,” we read Fitzgerald’s legendary story of American expatriate and alcoholic Charlie Wales, who has come to Paris to get custody of his young daughter.
In the 1940s gallery, we listen in on Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” about the Westcotts’ wireless that, with its “mistaken sensitivity to discord,” picks up the vehement voices of the tenants of other apartments.
Elkin and Donald Barthelme (“The School”) represent the 1970s. Moore got the best of Elkin’s stories, as Updike had picked another (“Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers”). In Elkin’s hilarious tale “The Conventional Wisdom,” liquor store owner Ellerbee is killed in a robbery and arrives in heaven where “there are actually Pearly Gates,” only to have St. Peter tell him to go to hell.
Robert Stone and Mona Simpson, among others, represent the 1990s. But the best story of that decade is Baxter’s “Harmony of the World,” about two failed musicians who embark on a doomed romance.
Moore and Pitlor’s choices from 2000 onward aren’t encumbered by Updike’s selections. Tobias Wolff, George Saunders and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri become old masters, joined by younger voices: Nathan Englander, Percy and Groff.
Percy’s story “Refresh, Refresh,” about boys whose fathers are called to active duty in the Iraq War, will likely become required reading on the effects at home of foreign wars. Groff’s inimitable prose ends the book with the story of Jude, who grows up in the Florida swampland among alligators, snakes and an unloving father.
Readers will decide for themselves which favorite stories ought to have been included. This book, however, along with Updike’s collection, is a fine gallery of some of the best short fiction in the world.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com.
‘100 Years of the Best American Short Stories’
Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 752 pages, $30