I was at first a little disappointed to see that T.C. Boyle was editing this years (last years… the most recent edition) Best American Short Stories. Not because I have a problem with him as a writer or a person, no quite the contrary. In 2014 he published a short story in the New Yorker called “The Relive Box” which is in my opinion one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, if not the very best, and it would have been a travesty if that story was not included, or at the very least short listed for BASS ’15. Since he is the editor though, there is no way it could be included. However I found out that the stories in this collection were originally published in 2013, so it can be used for next year’s collection, what a relief. In the introduction to the collection Boyle discusses the stories from BASS 1915, the first book in this series. He stated that only one story “Zelig” was good and related to the modern short story. He also, almost word for word, told the story “In Berlin” which was only a hundred words and change. He seemed to think it was funny how badly it was written, I’m not sure if I agree.
The Seige at Whale Cay by Megan Meyhew Bergman – Boyle made a comment that this story comes first in the collection because of the author’s last name, but it is also perhaps his favorite in the collection, and it’s probably my favorite as well. Regardless, the collection stars off very story. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, not too long, good depth of character, all characters, and I do mean characters. The story is about a former Floridian Professional Mermaid who is “Shacking Up” with a trust fund heiress who owns her own island (The titular Whale Cay) in the Caribbean. The main character has to fight for her girlfriend when an actress shows up and threatens the relationship.
Fingerprints by Justin Bigos – a very unusually written story, I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well. The story is about a kid whose house is robbed and his Alcoholic father shows up randomly from time to time. The story is told in a non-linier form and in the second person for the most part. I know I’ve read another story very similar to this, and I thought this was written by the same person, but evidently this is the only thing I’ve read by Bigos at this point, and I don’t remember exactly what that story was, also it was not as good as this one.
Happy Endings by Kevin Canty – not really worth mentioning
Moving On by Diane Cook – ordinarily I wait until I’m finished the book before I go to the end and read the notes about the authors and their thoughts on their own story, this one though, I couldn’t wait, it was just too weird. Good though. The story is about a widow who is sent to sort of minimal security prison and waits to be selected as someone’s wife. The way the notes about the story are written you would think that places like this actually exist, I don’t think they do, I certainly hope not.
Bride by Julia Elliot – another weird story, so weird that I had to read the notes right after again. Remember Weird is not a bad thing, and it certainly is not here. The story takes place in a medieval convent, which is suffering from plague and starvation due to the unceasing winter. The one problem I have with this story is the title, Bride? Come on, that’s so bland. “The Blackberry Whip” that would have been a better title, and it was a theme that ran throughout the story so? Oh well. Still a great story.
The Big Cat by Louise Eldrich – the first story I ever read out of the New Yorker (then and now my favorite magazine) was called “Disaster Stamps from Pluto.” It was my first true experience with the modern, popular, short story medium, and it was pretty good. I say that because the writer of that story was Louise Eldrich, the same author as this one. Also for the first time in this book (and perhaps first for any BASS book) I had read this story previously in the New Yorker, some two years before reading it again here. At first some of the things Eldrich was saying seemed familiar, then it became all too clear that I had read this story before. The title is a little misleading because it has almost nothing to do with the story, there isn’t even a cat in the story, but what can you do. It’s about a guy who leaves his wife, marries another woman, and then ends up cheeting on his second wife with his first wife. It’s a lighter, funnier story, but pretty good nonetheless.
You’ll Apologize If You Have To by Ben Fowlkes – okay, not worth going into detail about.
The Fugue by Arna Bontemps Hemenway – I don’t know about this story, it’s very postmodern which I usually like, but for some reason I didn’t seem to care for it in this story. It took me literally 2.5 hours to read. Now I know I’m a slow reader, but this one took way too long to get through. The story is about a veteran and it seems to be written from the point of view of someone with PTSD, in which the subjects bounce around and time does not seem to flow in the proper direction. The story is written to reflect this; however it doesn’t come off as organic and looks more as though it is written strangely for the sake of being strange. Usually I like these sorts of things, but this one kind of rubs me the wrong way.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson – I’m a pretty big Denis Johnson fan as it is, and I just came off two of his novels maybe a week before reading this story, and it did not disappoint. An overview of the story was given to the introduction to the whole collection, but what Boyle implied was the entirety of the story, was only a tiny fraction of it. There is a lot that goes on in this story, about a late-middle aged man and his various acquaintances. The story is divided up into 10 sections, each one with its own title, “Silences,” “Memorial,” “Mermaid,” Etc. and each one is almost like a chapter or story in miniature. So this story is almost a Denis Johnson novel condensed down to 20 pages. Though this story is a little longer, it is in no way too long, also one I will likely read again. The story reminds me a lot of Carvers “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
M&L by Sarah Kokernot – another surprisingly good story. It takes place at a wedding, however the two main characters (both the titular “M” and “L” or Miriam and Liam) are not the ones getting married. They were high school sweethearts who broke up in college (as so often happens) and now they are at the wedding of a mutual friend. The story uses flashbacks heavily, revealing each piece of information non-linearly. You find that Liam is kind of a nerdy kid, while Miriam is the “it” girl. However something happens that brings the two together. It’s a gritty story, but very good.
Jack, July by Victor Lodato – not very good, but not worth going into.
Sh’khol by Colum McCann – not the best story in the collection but it’s alright; it is memorable, about an Irish Jewish woman who adopts a deaf Russian boy. For Christmas she gives the boy a wetsuit so he can swim during the winter. The kid has major problems aside from being deaf, he also has to be strapped into his bed during bouts of madness, and wear a rugby helmet so he doesn’t hurt himself. But somehow the kid escapes and they have to do a massive manhunt for him on Christmas day (or maybe the day after). The woman is a translator and the title, the word “Sh’khol” is a Hebrew word that doesn’t have an English counterpart, meaning a parent who has lost a child.
Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken – this story was very good. It’s about a family with a 12 or 13 year old daughter who is going to be a major problem. She gets brought home by the police at the beginning of the story without parents because she was at a party where they were doing nitrox. The parents in the story are unclear on their roles as parents, what should be punished what should be rewarded, should a child be made to fear their parents or not. As a “punishment” the father decides to take the whole family to Paris for the summer. Which actually does improve the wayward daughters condition until she gets into a serious accident. There are two problems with this story, but they are not major problems, it’s still very good. First: it’s too long, maybe the longest story in the collection, and its divided awkwardly. There are two chapters, but the division of chapters is not at the obvious division of the story (i.e. the accident), but there are many section brakes within each chapter. The other problem is the story title, unless I missed something, it doesn’t relate to the story in any obvious way, and unless I don’t have a clear understanding of the word, it doesn’t relate to it in any sort of metaphysical way either. “Paris” although fairly bland and probably overused as a title would have been much more appropriate. An even better title would have been “Elephant Paint” as strange as that title might be it dose relate to the story, trust me, that’s the title I would have gone with anyways. Also an odd choice in the focal character’s name of Helen, shouldn’t they have gone to Greece with that name (maybe that’s too literal) of course the story would have been much different if it took place in Greece.
Motherlode by Thomas McGuane – the story opens with a man being forced at gun point to drive another man to an unknown destination for an unknown reason, that’s fairly straight forward but the story keeps going in unexpected directions. No one can be trusted, and their background stories are less known by the end of the story then they are at the beginning. Yet it’s still good, pretty good, not the best story in the collection but pretty good. The title has a few different meanings throughout the story, a direct reference and use of the title refers to the movie “Motherlode” which I’ve never heard of before, but it’s apparently a Charlton Heston movie from 1982.
Madame Lazarus by Maile Meloy – I skipped this story after reading the first 3 pages, because it is about a dog, and I don’t read animal stories for the potential pet death that could come at the end. It’s probably good, considering Boyle seems to pick them well, but I don’t like to take the risk.
Kavitha and Mustafa Shobha Rao – not bad. The main problem with the story is the bizarre ending. The story is about a husband and wife who are hostages in a train robbery, the story switches between past and present which is fine, and the present is written in a very detailed and slow pace, which is also fine, however the ending, which is also in the present, is written in a very ethereal non-specific way, more so then even the flashback sequences. Also despite the ample descriptions of the train, it is still almost impossible for me to picture, which either a sign of my personal ignorance about foreign life, or just a sign of bad writing. I should emphasize though that the story is not all that bad, it is only no-so-good because it’s being compared to a very Steller selection of stories within this collection.
About My Aunt by Joan Silber – okay, well kind of a strange occurrence here, but this story is far worse than any of the others so far. Unsympathetic rebellious characters look for sympathy set in the aftermath of post-Katrina New York. Probably would be the worst of the bunch if not for the next.
North by Aria Beth Sloss – even worse. It started out good, about the narrators lost father who was an arctic explorer that ballooned across the arctic and fell into an ice burg to be discovered years later. A typical (and better story) this would have been the whole story, but instead this is all detailed in the first two or three pages. The rest of the story is about the narrator’s father’s ennui of being stuck at home when he wanted to be in the north (hence the title). And then the story ends with heavy description of the narrator’s mother giving birth to the narrator with no one around. Give me a break. I’ve never read a story by Aria Beth Sloss before, and probably won’t do so intentionally again. It’s one thing to have a thoroughly bad story (like the previous one), but in my opinion it’s even worse to start out the story good, with promise, and then have the bulk of the story bad. I should write more into this idea.
Unsafe at Any Speed by Laura Lee Smith – the story started out fairly bland, but picked up the pace (no pun intended) quickly. A very anything-can-happen type story that is rather unexpected as the story continues. A man leaves his house on his 50-something birthday with plans of seeing a few clients and then buying a Corvaire. After his first client, the secretary says she just quit her job and wants a ride, and the story goes on from there.
Mr. Voice by Jess Walter – a great little story and a great way to end the collection. I wouldn’t say it’s quite the best of all these, but it is close. The story is about preteen girl who’s mom marries a much older man. The mother eventually leaves and leaves the girl with the other man who quickly becomes her father and treats her very well. It’s a bit of a tear jerker, but not in a sad way, which is difficult to pull off to say the least.
Overview – I am very impressed with this collection, of the few BASS collections I’ve read I’d say this one is by far the best. The editors of these collections tend to be hit and miss, but Mr. Boyle just blows it out of the park. Of the 20 stories collected, I skipped one (Madame Lazarus), four were bad (The Fugue, Jack July, About My Aunt, and North), two more were not memorable (Happy Endings, and You’ll Apollogize If You Have To), seven were good (Fingerprints, Moving On, M&L, Sh’Khol, Motherlode, Kavitha and Mustafa, and Unsafe at Any Speed), and six were outstanding (The Seige at Whale Cay, Bride, The Big Cat, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Thunderstruck, and Mr. Voice). If I had to choose I’d probably say “The Seige at Whale Cay” was my favorite in the collection, but the rest are damn close to being as good. Even the worst stories in this collection are not quite as bad as the worst stories in the 2008 collection.