The Best AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2010

®

Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Ri ch ar d R u s s o with He i d i P i t l o r With an Introduction by Richard Russo

hou gh ton mif flin h a rc o u rt
bos ton

n ew york 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company Introduction copyright © 2010 by Richard Russo The Best American Series and The Best American Short Stories are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. a ll rights re se rve d No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York 10003. issn 0067-6233 isbn 978-0-547-05528-2 isbn 978-0-547-05532-9 (pbk.) Printed in the United States of America doc 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” by Steve Almond. First published in Tin House, vol. 10, no. 4. From the forthcoming God Bless America by Steve Almond, to be published in 2011, copyright © by Steve Almond. Used by permission of Lookout Books. “Into Silence” by Marlin Barton. First published in Sewanee Review, July-September 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Marlin Barton. Reprinted by permission of Marlin Barton. “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter. First published in Tin House, Issue 40. From the forthcoming Gryphon by Charles Baxter, to be published 2011, copyright © 2011 by Charles Baxter. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. “Safari” by Jennifer Egan. First published in The New Yorker, January 11, 2010. From A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Egan. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go” by Danielle Evans. First published in A Public Space, no. 9. From Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. Copyright © 2009 by Danielle Evans. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. “The Valetudinarian” by Joshua Ferris. First published in The New Yorker, August 3, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Joshua Ferris. Reprinted by permission of The New Yorker.

“Delicate Edible Birds” from Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff. First published in Glimmer Train, no. 70. Copyright © 2009 by Lauren Groff. Reprinted by permission of Voice, an imprint of Hyperion. All rights reserved. “Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison. First published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Wayne Harrison. Reprinted by permission of Wayne Harrison. “Oh, Death” by James Lasdun. First published in The Paris Review, Spring 2009, under the title “The Hollow.” From It’s Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun. Copyright © 2009 by James Lasdun. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship” by Rebecca Makkai. First published in Ploughshares, Winter 2009/2010. Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Makkai. Reprinted by permission of Rebecca Makkai. “My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer” by Brendan Mathews. First published in The Cincinnati Review, vol. 6, no. 1. Copyright © 2009 by Brendan Mathews. Reprinted by permission of the author. “PS” by Jill McCorkle. First published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2009. From Going Away Shoes by Jill McCorkle. Copyright © 2009 by Jill McCorkle. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” by Kevin Moffett. First published in McSweeney’s, no. 30. Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Moffett. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Laugh” by Téa Obreht. First published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Téa Obreht. Reprinted by permission of Sterling Lord Literistic on behalf of Téa Obreht. “All Boy” by Lori Ostlund. First published in the New England Review, vol. 30, no. 3. From The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund. Copyright © 2009 by Lori Ostlund. Reprinted by permission of the University of Georgia Press. “The Ascent” from Burning Bright by Ron Rash. First published in Tin House, no. 39. Copyright © 2010 by Ron Rash. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” by Karen Russell. First published in Tin House, no. 41. Copyright © 2009 by Karen Russell. Reprinted by permission of Denise Shannon Literary Agency, Inc. “The Netherlands Lives with Water” by Jim Shepard. First published in McSweeney’s, no. 32. From the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard, to be published 2011, copyright © 2011 by Jim Shepard. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “The Cowboy Tango” by Maggie Shipstead. First published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Maggie Shipstead. Reprinted by permission of Maggie Shipstead. “Raw Water” by Wells Tower. First published in McSweeney’s, no. 32. Copyright © 2009 by Wells Tower. Reprinted by permission of Wells Tower.

Introduction

In the late 1980s, when I was a young assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited campus. The English department had a small budget for visiting writers, but only the Honors College had funds sufficient to entice someone of Singer’s stature to a place like Carbondale, Illinois, which meant that we had to share him with the entire university. Mr. Singer was elderly and quite frail, his vision and hearing not what they once were, though his physical diminishments belied a still razor-sharp intelligence and wit. He traveled with his wife, and they were attentively cared for by the university, but for a man in his nineties he was worked pretty hard. In the afternoon, both undergraduate and grad students, as well as faculty from a variety of university disciplines, convened in a large room with an oblong table, at the head of which Mr. Singer had been ensconced. The students were awarded seats at the table, whereas their professors, chafing visibly at the arrangement, were consigned to an outer ring of folding chairs and reminded that the purpose of the session was to allow students to enter a dialogue with the great man, that their questions got priority. Seated at the very farthest remove from her husband was Mrs. Singer. The first student question was obviously a plant. “Mr. Singer?” said one of the undergraduates. The old man had trouble locating the voice, lost as it was in the ambient noise of the room — people settling into their chairs, whispering in nervous anticipation — but finally saw the raised hand. “Mr. Singer? Could you tell us, please, What is the purpose of literature?”

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Mr. Singer smiled broadly at the question, as if this were the first time he had ever heard it and was delighted to know the answer. “The purpose of literature,” he said clearly, meeting the student’s eye, “is to entertain and to instruct.” He let his voice fall. Next question. The undergraduate students looked at the graduate students, who looked at the outer ring of faculty. Clearly, everyone expected more. The question, after all, was the sort likely to generate whole classes of heated, unresolved debate, but here was a Nobel Prize winner who seemed to think that ten words sufficed to put the matter to rest. “But Mr. Singer,” the student persisted. “Shouldn’t literature also —” Singer held up his hand. “To entertain . . . ,” he repeated, pausing to allow his wisdom on the subject to sink in, “. . . and to instruct.” Though he couldn’t have been clearer or more adamant, the question proved resilient. Over the next hour several other attempts were made by faculty and students to get their distinguished visitor to elaborate on the other possible uses (political? cultural?) of literature, but each time he demurred. Near the end of the session, an aggrieved voice rang out, “But in your own stories, don’t you always . . .” At the sound of this new voice, Mr. Singer’s head, which had begun to droop, snapped up, his eyes darting around the room, anxious to locate the source of this new objection. “You?” he said, squinting at his wife who sat in the farthest reaches of his milky vision. “You! I don’t have enough problems?” To entertain and to instruct. Interestingly, he never reversed the order. Literature, he seemed to suggest, couldn’t possibly instruct without first entertaining; nor did he fail to pause dramatically between “entertain” and “instruct,” as if he feared his listeners were more likely to forget the first purpose than the second. Who could blame him? I might have been a young, wet-behind-the-ears junior professor, but counting grad school, I’d been in the lit biz for a good decade and had witnessed firsthand the propensity of my lit colleagues to mine both poetry and prose fiction for its sparkling nuggets of meaning (instruction) while allowing its many delights to run off like so much slurry. The very word “entertain” connotes to such folk a lack of seriousness, as if the ability to engage and de-

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light readers amounted to a mere parlor trick. The desire to please, some would maintain, is akin to pandering. The writer’s real job is not to court the affection of readers but to force them to confront hard truths. Back in grad school I’d flirted with such ideas myself, but lately I’d come to suspect that the desire to show people a good time is a generous impulse rooted in humility. The artist acknowledges both the existence and importance of others. He comes to us bearing a gift he hopes will please us. He starts out making the thing for himself, perhaps, but at some point he realizes he wants to share it, which is why he spends long hours reshaping the thing, lovingly honing its details in the hopes it will please us, that it will be a gift worth the giving and receiving. But of course it’s unfair to blame English teachers. Too often writers themselves, like composers terrified of being dismissed as “melody makers,” give the impression that “instruction” is the big game worth stalking. Graham Greene, for instance, drew a distinction between his “serious novels” and “entertainments” like The Third Man, leaving readers to wonder if he was blind to what a fine piece of writing the latter is. Though I’m sure Mr. Singer would have allowed that not everyone who uses the word “entertaining” means the same thing by it, he appeared to want no part of such snobbery. His point seemed to be that while we might not all agree on what we find “entertaining,” we’re unlikely to confuse it with what’s commonly meant by “instructive.” One is a horse and the other’s a cart, and in his opinion one belonged in front, the other behind. I left that afternoon session grinning from ear to ear, convinced I’d found an ally, even if he was just visiting. That night Singer read to a packed auditorium. Given the paces he’d already been put through, I expected him to be exhausted, but instead he seemed invigorated. Either he’d had a nap or been fed a good meal (I can’t imagine where, in Carbondale), or he was just pleased that with the afternoon’s rough interrogation behind him, his only remaining task was to disappear into one of his magical tales. Most nonwriters don’t understand how wonderful it is for an author to lose himself (to lose, literally, his self) in a story he’s written, or how similar the experience of doing so is to that of a nonwriter who loses himself in a stranger’s story: for a time, you, your life, your troubles . . . none of it matters. Granted, writers do feed off receptive audiences, and there’s always an element of per-

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formance, but it’s the disappearance, especially after a long day of smiling and hand-shaking and answering questions, that the writer craves. Dickens is said to have read himself to death in huge auditoriums, losing himself night after night to Bill Sykes’s murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. The best art has always had the power to seduce its creator. Whoever worked the sound system the night of Mr. Singer’s reading was given a delicate task. The faculty member whose job it was to introduce Mr. Singer was young and robust of voice, whereas the writer himself needed a significant boost from the microphone. His hellos were barely audible, but as he thanked the audience for coming to hear him read, the unseen sound engineer in the rear of the auditorium gradually brought up the volume until the small man before the microphone could be heard throughout the cavernous space. Here, like a new plot point introduced into a narrative already under way, the law of unintended consequences kicked in. Because the whole podium was now alive, the mic amplifying not just the speaker’s voice but every other sound. When the toe of his shoe encountered the base of the lectern, a deep explosion resulted, the reverberations of which he had to patiently wait out before continuing, though he seemed innocent of his own causal relationship to the disturbance. My wife and I were seated near the front of the auditorium, and when Singer set down the thick sheaf of pages on the podium with another resounding boom, we regarded each other with chagrin. Did he mean to read them all? Was it his intention in this manner to exact literary revenge for the afternoon’s What-is-the-purpose-of-literature discussion? He began to read, and after about twenty seconds — far too soon, it seemed — he finished and turned the first page, and I realized that, yes, of course, he meant to read them all, but there were only three or four sentences on each; the font had been magnified to accommodate the reader’s failing vision. Before he could move on to page two, though, page one had to be dispensed with. Apparently the manuscript had been fastened with a large staple, not paper-clipped, and the sheaf was too thick for each page to be easily folded underneath the ones still to be read, so Mr. Singer decided, reasonably enough, simply to detach the finished page, which came free, reluctantly, with a loud pop. But now the poor man had another problem. The lectern was narrow, and there was nowhere

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to put the detached page. He thought about this for a second and arrived at a workable solution, simply letting go of it. No doubt he expected the page to drop straight down and come to rest at his feet on the elevated stage. Instead it caught an air current and swooped out into the audience, where those seated in the front rows rose in a wave to field it. There was a ripple of nervous laughter which, blessedly, Mr. Singer appeared not to hear. He was finished with the second page now, and after a brief struggle and with a sound not unlike a cork being extracted from a champagne bottle, it too came free of its staple and wafted out into the audience. I leaned over to Barbara, my wife, and whispered, “Dear God.” There had to be at least fifty pages in the sheaf. This was going to happen fifty more times? I wasn’t sure I could bear it. Mr. Singer himself, though, had the determined look of a man who’d endured worse, and so I resumed my prayer, silently now. “Dear God, let this grand old man make it through his story. Give him his well-earned triumph. Do not make a mockery of him.” Does God listen to the prayers of agnostic young novelists offered on behalf of elderly Nobel laureates? You tell me. After about twenty grueling pages, half of which ended up in the audience, Mr. Singer, finishing another page, gave his now customary page tug, but this time, despite his efforts, there was no pop. The page remained stubbornly affixed. He tugged again . . . still nothing (Dear God dear God dear God). On the third try — a mighty yank this time — there was a detonation, and out into the audience fluttered not one page but two, each describing its own terrible arc. The page he needed to continue his story had broken containment, sailed out into the audience without his permission. All, I concluded, my heart sinking, was lost. But I was wrong. Only momentarily flustered, the old man reached into his suit jacket and took out another manuscript. “This sometimes happens,” he admitted ruefully. And not just to him, he seemed to imply, but rather to all who soldier on in the face of life’s myriad difficulties, expected (the frailty that comes with age) and unexpected (You! I don’t have enough problems?). Undaunted, he began to read a whole new story, a backup, the thing he’d learned long ago that it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have. He’d come to entertain us, to give us the best he had to offer, and he meant to do just that. Did he need the money at this point?

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I believe and devoutly hope not. The impression he gave was of a man deeply grateful at such an advanced age to have so many devoted readers in a place he’d never been to before, people whose lives he’d touched by putting pen to paper. He’d never met them and wouldn’t meet them tonight. There were too many of them and there was just one of him, and when he was finished reading this new story, he’d be whisked away, empty of energy and even his magical words. But right now he enjoyed being among us strangers, giving us the gift of his voice. He read the second story in its entirety, calmly and without a glitch, as if his ninety-some years had taught him that he was unlikely to be thwarted twice in the same evening. He’d done all a man could reasonably do to anticipate and stave off disaster. It would have to be enough. Bathed in sweat and admiration, I felt — what’s the word? — instructed. Note to self: this is how it’s done. To entertain and to instruct. I’ll leave the defining of these two crucial terms to others and say only that I was wonderfully entertained and instructed by the twenty riveting stories in this year’s Best American. It’s a showcase of twenty writers’ often breathtaking talents, but there’s no showing off, and the stories themselves — rich and varied — are blessedly free of the narcissism of the age. I’m pleased to report that there are no triumphs of style over substance, and the language, while often beautiful and sometimes absolutely electric, is always in the ser vice of narrative. The writers may have begun by writing for themselves, as the late J. D. Salinger famously claimed to do, but in the end they turned outward, offering us the gift of what they’d crafted with such care, hoping we’d be pleased. And you will be. Narrowing the roughly two hundred and fifty stories I read to the final twenty felt like some sort of literary waterboarding. At the back of this book is a list of another hundred or so stories culled by Heidi Pitlor from the thousands she read this year in magazines large and small, and I strongly encourage you to search these out and read them, even though I know you’ll prefer some of them to the ones I chose and, along with their authors, hold my taste against me, but there you are and here am I. In one of my own most favorite stories in the anthology, one character, a father who’s taken up story writing late in life, remarks that stories are like dreams. His son, also a writer, disagrees. Stories, he claims, are like

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jars full of bees. You unscrew the lid and out come the bees. Maybe in the end that’s all guest editors do: we choose the stories that contain the most bees, the tales that sting us good, leaving us surprised and sore at first, then free to worry at our leisure the tender, inflamed spot, our attention focused, ourselves wide awake and alive.
Rich ard Rus s o

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