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Comments Timothy Crouse

When I received the news from Laura Furman that my story "Sphinxes" had been chosen for the O. Henry Prize Stories, I thought back to my first experience with the O. Henrys.

At the university I went to, the undergraduate library had a room set apart as a refuge from the pressures of study, and which I used all too freely for that purpose. Furnished with leather armchairs, it was a kind of walk-in humidor of short fiction, containing yards of anthologies and a complete set, to date, of the O. Henry Prize volumes. I would sometimes drop in after lunch for a quick read, and stagger out around dinner time, having binged.

One day, browsing one of the mustier O. Henry volumes, I stumbled upon a familiar name: Jerome Weidman. Mr. Weidman was an author I happened to know personally, through his son John, my roommate. I was aware that he began every workday by standing against the refrigerator in his kitchen to pore over a chapter of Dickens, and that he then repaired to his desk in the living room, where, with his back to a panoramic view of Central Park, he would push ahead on whichever novel of his own was in progress. Mrs. Weidman sometimes did her needlepoint on a nearby sofa. It didn't seem to bother Mr. Weidman when John and I came in to chat with her—quite the contrary. He would go on filling pages of a legal pad, occasionally glancing up to toss a wisecrack into the conversation, or an anecdote from his hardscrabble youth on the Lower East Side.

For all that I had watched him write, however, I had never read anything he'd written. So it was with more than normal curiosity that I started in on his prizewinner, "My Father Sits in the Dark." I came to the end, and then, stunned by the evocation of a young man trying to fathom his own flesh and blood, I read the story again. Its honesty was a lesson. I knew that the poignancy of its captured truth would long continue to resonate in me, as indeed it has. And thereafter I regarded with chastened eyes the jaunty old pro at the living room desk.

What strikes me now is how narrowly that gem has survived. Few short story books by individuals escape the common fate of out of print and out of mind. Big names alone do not necessarily protect even the finest stories. Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man at the Bridge" sits largely unread among his "First Forty-Nine." James T. Farrell's "The Misunderstanding" has drifted into oblivion, as has John O'Hara's "The War." On the perilous crossing from their own time into the future, stories—dense with meaning but short on bulk, so much more easily passed by than novels—seem to travel best in convoy. Escorted by the hardiest work of other authors, their chances of breaking through to posterity exponentially increase. Together in one volume, they vouch for one another's worth. Jerome Weidman's story ultimately made it into Irving and Ilana Howe's Short Shorts, where it enduringly rubs shoulders with progeny of Verga, Kleist, and Babel. But it was an O. Henry jury that gave it its first lease on life.

So, when "Sphinxes" got selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories, my gratitude was above all for the extra chance it had been given to make its way.

(author photo © courtesy of the author)

About the Author

Timothy Crouse has been a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and the Washington columnist for Esquire, writing numerous articles for these and other publications, including The New Yorker. He is the author of The Boys on the Bus, a classic account of the role of the press in presidential campaigns. The new version of "Anything Goes" that he wrote with John Weidman was a long-running hit in New York and London. With Luc Brébion he translated Roger Martin du Gard's Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort (Knopf, 2000). He is currently writing short stories. His fiction has appeared in Zoetrope and Conjunctions.

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