Lydia Fitzpatrick’s “Safety” grabbed me and still, weeks later, hasn’t let go. (For what it’s worth, I’m not expecting it to, ever.)
I do most of my reading before bed, so you’d think I’d seek out short story collections. Generally, though, I gravitate toward full reads, nonfiction and novels. Also, although I know the O. Henry Prize is awarded only to the “best” short stories published that year, some years I find it uneven with regard to matching my tastes. I open the book and hop around, skipping the stories that aren’t of interest. And you know what? This year I skipped exactly one story.
Instead, what I got was variety, imagination, heartbreak, and hope. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Narrator” was an odd little tale of obsession with an older, egotistical writer. Its first-person narrator (the story’s, not the titular one) captures the fascination one often feels when conversing with fellow writers: “We spent the night over coffee in a café on Telegraph Avenue, breaking pieces off from our lives, making them into stories.”
In Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby,” a baseball player reflects on what he loves best about the sport: “Baseball had things I could rely on—rules, physics, statistics. It is the world’s most quantifiable sport.” In this confusing, mixed-message world we live, days and events that are unclear and open to interpretation, I can relate to wanting facts to cling to, realities to accept and not question.
The narrator in Elizabeth Genovise’s “Irises” is someone you don’t hear from all that often: an eight-month-old fetus, privy to all that has gone on outside the womb during her residency there. Even she is wise, insightful, choosing the words that will grab us, move us. “My grandmother once told my mother that there is a splice of quartz inside each of us, like the quartz inside a compass or clock. We feel the stone glow warm when we find what it is we are meant to do.” This, of course, begs the question: Is the forthcoming baby her mother’s purpose in life?
In David H. Lynn’s “Divergence,” a motorcycle accident lands Jeremy in the hospital. There, he reflects on his life—and the feelings he no longer has. Lynn perfectly captures the muddiness we all feel upon waking: Where are we? What happened? What did we dream? “For a few moments he’d lie still in the dry air and dim light, thirsty, taking stock, trying to recapture for an instant in image, a feeling, that had already faded beyond his grasp.”
“Happiness” by Ron Carlson is a laidback tale of a divorced father and his two sons taking a familiar winter camping trip at the frosty family cabin in Minnesota. Its simply storytelling style recalls Ernest Hemingway: You know there is something deeper lurking beneath the capture of the days. When it comes, you have to read it twice, still in shock. Did I miss something? Even Carlson said he was surprised by the way the story ended itself.
By far, though, it was Lydia Fitzpatrick’s “Safety” that grabbed me and still, weeks later, hasn’t let go. (For what it’s worth, I’m not expecting it to, ever.) It begins gently, elementary school children doing their gym-class activities in the gymnasium, but before you’ve turned the page, terror has struck: gunshots. We follow the gym teacher and one of the students as they react, then act, to the horror before them. We also get a look at the shooter, the brother of one of the students. The writing is tight and objective, straightforward and unemotional. And, given the current climate of our society, prescient and heartbreaking.
This is, of course, just a handful of the 20 stories collected herein, each one unique and thought-provoking. Given the level of enjoyment I had with O. Henry 2016, I’ll have to revisit previous years and see what I might have missed. | Laura Hamlett