In the work of Anton Chekhov, to whom The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005
is dedicated, one feels a force as powerful as a hurricane moving toward his characters. His knowledge from a young age that he had a terminal illness may account for some of this, but he was also sensitive to the gathering political storm in Russia. The 1905 revolution broke out within six months of his death. Writers and other artists respond to the same political and societal pressures as everybody else. Some explicitly use a political figure or an overwhelming event such as the Vietnam War in their art. Others are engaged by the public tensions of their time without any direct reference to current events.
The twenty writers of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005
live all over our planet—a family farm in Kentucky, the city of Perth in Western Australia, urban Florida. Their stories are set in India, Paris, London, Brazil, and New York, also possibly in heaven. Whatever their origin, whatever their private or public inspiration, our Prize Stories are all preoccupied with notions of community. The relationship between individual and society is usually portrayed as a struggle—think of the destruction of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. In these O. Henry stories, community and individual appear most often not in opposition but in some kind of disintegrating relation.
. . .
Among the New York City characters of “Dues,” nothing is forgiven, neither a minor crime of property nor a love affair that won’t quite die. Dale Peck sprinkles his story with doubles and dualities from the deuce of the title on, but all the odd couples are joined when an ironic community arises from disaster. Another New Yorker, in Paula Fox’s “Grace,” is opaque to his fellow office-workers and too obdurate for love. It’s not because he’s in New York that John Hillman is isolated but because he’s himself. In the New York of Caitlin Macy’s tale of real estate and social distinction, “Christie,” well-being is defined by living at the right address, even having the right doorman. The fun of the story is that we root for the narrator’s happiness though we know, and hope she knows, that it’s unattainable.
Happiness, almost an ecstasy, radiates from Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a tall tale of an unnamed Spokane Indian’s circular attempts, during a drunken twenty-four-hour odyssey, to repossess his grandmother’s regalia. In the course of his hero’s haphazard encounters, Alexie creates a community of people who, without expecting much, receive, and sometimes give, great gifts.
Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Brief History of the Dead” is set in a heavenlike yet down-to-earth city of the dead where acceptance is the norm, a city whose inhabitants are linked by the beat of a communal heart, the “pulse of those who are still alive.” The absence of hostility among the city’s dead citizens marks the afterlife as an almost enviable place to live.
Port William, the setting of Wendell Berry’s “The Hurt Man,” is a river town, unplanned and apparently ungoverned, “the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave.” Berry’s is a story about learning from those we live with, told by five-year-old Mat Feltner, who’s still wearing dresses and isn’t sure if he’ll be a boy or a girl, though he’s taken a step toward masculinity by learning to smoke cigars and chew coffee beans. He comes to understand that in the best communities we inherit one another’s stories and are sometimes remembered by them.
The love triangle in Timothy Crouse’s “Sphinxes” begins with piano lessons and completes itself in tragedy. The reader witnesses lovers wrenching apart, friendships dissolving, and the death of a child. Where once there was a sweet group—a family, three friends—by the end there are only individuals suffering separately. In another love story, Michael Parker’s “The Golden Era of Heartbreak,” the narrator is a runner pursuing respite from his baroquely relentless misery. He seems like the loneliest man on earth, but when he finds himself with company, his misfortune only increases.
Lillian in Nancy Reisman’s “Tea” has an unusual and satisfying life. Single, Jewish, she’s made a bold peace with her late-1920s community and with her sensuality by sleeping with the men she wants to and allowing herself no emotional involvements. Then she embarks on a new affair, and what begins with desire grows more treacherous. In Gail Jones’s “Desolation,” an accidental intimacy in Paris between a desperate man and a distant woman affords little comfort to either of them. The story captures both the loneliness and serendipitous companionship of solitary travel.
Three of the Prize Stories draw on history. In Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s “Mudlavia,” a community of early twentieth-century health seekers offers an alternative to a boy’s unhappy home life; that the alternative has its own flaws makes it no less important to his future. At the center of Ben Fountain’s “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” is a rare piece of music that only a talented pianist born with an eleventh finger can play. It is an emblem for what happens to twentieth-century European Jewish life. In Liza Ward’s “Snowbound,” the young narrator, trapped in a Midwestern blizzard, lightens her loneliness by imagining a long-ago storm that isolated her frontier ancestors.
Exile creates new forms of community. The narrator of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s “Refuge in London” grows up in a London boardinghouse full of “European émigrés, all of them . . . carrying a past, a country or countries—a continent.” Her involvement with a once-famous artist and his rebellious wife affirms the lifeline that making art can be. In Nell Freudenberger’s “The Tutor,” set in Bombay, a young Indian man, altered by his student years in America, meets an American girl who has grown up in a series of foreign cities; she needs his help to be admitted to an American college. Rather as a surgeon might explore a wound, Freudenberger considers what belonging to a community means for each character.
In Tessa Hadley’s “The Card Trick,” Gina is an awkward teenager who’s ashamed of herself and her background. She visits a beloved writer’s house, now a museum, expecting to find herself as much at home as she is in the writer’s work; instead she’s alienated by the décor and its bourgeois comfort. Years later, her adolescent awkwardness seemingly behind her, Gina returns to the house, and her new reading of it pulls the story to its moving conclusion.
In Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The High Divide,” Ignatius Loyola Banner is a loner: his mother is dead, his father mad, and he lives in a Catholic orphanage. He befriends a boy who seems to be his opposite—he has a beautiful mother and a father who “rakes it in”—but a camping trip in the Olympic Mountains reveals that where family trouble is concerned, says Ignatius with wisdom and forgiveness, “there are millions of us everywhere.” Too much togetherness and easy community demand a high price in Edward P. Jones’s “A Rich Man.” A recent widower, Horace Perkins finds a bright life with a new group of friends, until, overcome by locusts in the form of women, drugs, drink, and his own weaknesses, Horace is so alone that he must ask in the end: “How does a man start from scratch?”
The startling beauty of the North Carolinian setting of Ron Rash’s “Speckle Trout” distracts the reader at first from the corruption at work in Lanny, the young and bored protagonist, and his rural community. When Lanny steals marijuana plants from an inaccessible plantation, he courts disaster and achieves it. Lanny knows the water and the mountains, the meaning of the sky and the local plants, but he is incapable of using his knowledge for his own good.
When her cousin runs in from the beach with the startling announcement that the body of a drowned woman has washed ashore, the narrator of Frances de Pontes Peebles’s “The Drowned Woman” comments: “My father would have never allowed Dorany into the dining room like that under normal circumstances.” Yet in her family there are no normal circumstances. None of the relationships are what they appear to be, and the truths that emerge shatter their small community.
Jean Strouse, biographer of diarist Alice James and the industrialist J. Pierpont Morgan, once said of biography that “the assumptions we make and the questions we ask about other people’s lives serve as tacit guides to our own.” This could as easily be said of fiction. Reading stories can transform our natural nosiness into recognition of another person nothing like ourselves.
After a century of modernist questioning of our ideas and institutions, we still long, as Strouse says, “for models of wholeness . . . for evidence that individual lives and choices matter.” Models of wholeness, however different from ourselves, can reassure us that in a world that seems large and impersonal, each individual’s choices are worthy of our attention.
The reader of fiction doesn’t require that models of wholeness be exemplary, only that they be fascinating. For as long as the story lasts, the reader doesn’t question whether or not individual lives and choices matter. We are willing captives, relieved for however long of our own burdens and complications.
There is another gift a story may give its reader. Our experience of the finest fiction changes; over time, we will reread the 2005 O. Henry Prize Stories and find new ways to understand and appreciate them.
—Laura Furman, Austin, Texas
Excerpted from O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 by Prize Jury: Ann Patchett, Cristina Garcia, Richard Russo Laura Furman, series editor. Copyright © 2005 by Laura Furman. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.