The Best American Short Stories 2012 was somewhat underwhelming, but any collection deemed “Best” is bound to set expectation too high. I grabbed this book off the display table because Tom Perrotta was the guest editor. His stirring introductory essay reminded me why reading has always been one of my greatest treasures and gave a quick overview of recent and historical trends in American short fiction. Ever since a close friend recommended Joe College, Perrotta has been one of favorite writers and I would count him as one of the bigger influences on my own writing. However, our taste in short fiction seems a bit different.
In Perrotta’s remarks on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” he mentioned you “might catch the homage to Carver,” which might be the biggest understatement of all. Besides the title, of course, there are lines and phrases directly lifted. The basic plot structure and overall tone: two middle-aged couples get drunk and high at home and secrets are revealed, etc. is the same. I did think this one worked great, the examination of general of Jewish life in America v.s. Jewish life in Israel and cultural Judaism v.s. ultra-orthodox Judaism coupled with the specifics of four well drawn characters all of whom have a bit more going on than originally thought maybe for a great piece.
Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps,” about a homeless man trying to be decent father to his kid pulls at the heartstrings without being sentimental. You realize everyone begging for money at stop signs and subway stations is a real person, maybe with a family to care for, or a family back home, and how, at least for most of us, the only way to cope is too largely put them out of your mind or you’d be dragged down. The real trick in this piece is how you start believing this homeless guy can make it, and be a good dad, and then find out there are reasons he’s in this position. Walter pulls this off well.
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