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Prize Jury 2006
  • Kevin Brockmeier
  • Francine Prose
  • Colm Tóibín

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Kevin Brockmeier

    Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novel The Truth About Celia, the story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children's novels, City of Names and Groove: A Kind of Mystery. His most recent novel is The Brief History of the Dead. His stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and in The O. Henry Prize Stories three times. Brockmeier lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

    Juror Favorite:
    Kevin Brockmeier on "Old Boys, Old Girls" by Edward P. Jones

    Five notions regarding "Old Boys, Old Girls":

    1. I did not realize that I loved "Old Boys, Old Girls" until I was midway through the story. The key moment came for me when Cathedral, Caesar's friend and protector, whose mind has been broken by visions of the young bachelor he has killed, tells him, "What we need is a new God." Up to this point I had certainly appreciated the story for its pugnacity and its momentum and the steel suggestiveness of its imagery, but I did not yet love it. Then I read Cathedral's monologue about the senselessness of the world, and it was as if a wave ran through the rest of the pages. Everything that had come before "and everything that would come after" suddenly rose into place. It seems appropriate that a narrative about how even the most barren lives can be unexpectedly transfigured would be transformed in this way by a sentence about the need for a new God.

    2. One of the things I like best about "Old Boys, Old Girls" is the ease with which Edward P. Jones manipulates time. Fully eight years pass between the opening paragraph and the final sentence of the story, and yet the events Jones presents are so rich, you never get the sense that any phase of Caesar's life has been neglected or trimmed away. In addition, the story regularly sends out feelers into both the past and the future, quick little one- or two-sentence glimpses of other times and places, which seem to hint that the actions of the characters are shaped not only by what has already happened to them but by what has yet to occur. The narrative establishes a world governed as much by expectation as by memory, in which the future as well as the past sheds its light over the present.

    3. After I finished reading the manuscript for this anthology "minus the author names or sources of publication" and decided to write about "Old Boys, Old Girls," I conducted an Internet search to find out who the author was, which was how I discovered that the story revisits the lives of several of the characters from Edward P. Jones's 1992 collection Lost in the City. If I had not stumbled across this piece of information, I would never have guessed that the story arose out of an earlier piece of fiction, since the approach it takes to its characters and the settings they inhabit feels so bountiful, so comprehensive.

    4. There is a John Updike statement about how the ending of a piece of fiction is where you discover whether the story you have been reading is the same story the writer thought he was writing. "Old Boys, Old Girls" ends with a moment of hopeful suspension involving both Caesar and a little girl who is watching him as she tinkers with her bicycle (and I'll stop to mention here how much I like the fact that although "Old Boys, Old Girls" is mainly about Caesar, it is continually ready to share its space with other characters, even characters who brush up against the action for only a moment before they take their leave). I must have read the story half a dozen times now, including this final scene between Caesar and the little girl, and it is a testimony to its power that when their hearts pause, my own heart continues to pause along with them.

    5. Of course, a reader could finish "Old Boys, Old Girls" without taking note of any of the things I have mentioned and still appreciate it thanks to an entirely different set of considerations. There is a largeness to the story, a vitality and a freedom of meaning, that makes it possible to follow any number of pathways from the beginning to the end. It is the kind of story I like best, one that gives its readers plenty of wandering room.

    Francine Prose

    Francine Prose is the author of eleven novels, including Blue Angel, which was nominated for a 2000 National Book Award. Her most recent books are A Changed Man, a novel; After, a novel for young adults; Sicilian Odyssey, a travel book; The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired; Gluttony, a meditation on a deadly sin; and a biography, Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. Prose lives in New York City.

    Juror Favorite:
    Francine Prose on "Window" by Deborah Eisenberg

    Were I to attempt to summarize "Window"--which I wouldn't, for fear of spoiling the reader's pleasure in its delicate plot shifts and in the elegant pace at which it reveals essential information--it would probably not sound anything like the marvelous story Deborah Eisenberg has written. Because to summarize is to separate the bones of plot from the flesh of language, and what makes this story so incandescent is the language in which it is written: the way each precisely chosen and resonant word demonstrates the most profound respect for the reader, and for the story's characters. It's assumed that we will be able to understand a fiction that so fully inhabits its protagonist's consciousness that there is no need--no place--for conventional exposition. Just as it is assumed that Kristina--jobless, homeless, down on her luck--has a complex sensibility and an inner life rich enough to afford the most inspired use of metaphor, the most original and penetrating responses to her situation and to the world around her. In just a few words, we are made to understand exactly why Kristina (why anyone) would be attracted to someone like Eli, and, just as she does, we see and ignore the warning signs, the low thrum of menace that sounds beneath the buzz of attraction. Even the title is beautifully chosen, because to read the story is to feel as if one window after another were opening, allowing us a series of fleeting and privileged glimpses into the human heart and soul.

    Colm Tóibín

    Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland in 1955, and educated at University College, Dublin. His novels include The South, The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship, and, most recently, The Master. His works of nonfiction include The Trial of the Generals, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, and Love in a Dark Time. Tóibín lives in Dublin.

    Juror Favorite:
    Colm Tóibín on "Passion" by Alice Munro

    The story is framed; what happens is told in the light of many years later. We are allowed to guess what sort of person Grace became in the years that followed. We know, and we believe, that she has come back to this place because something defining occurred here. The story then is not simply something she remembers, or something strange or poetic, a tale worth telling, but it is a crucial moment in Grace's young life, a line she crossed that made all the difference.

    A novel is a thousand, maybe two thousand details. A story too is all details, but each of them has to do more work, tell us more, like a telling detail in a play that will lead to something. The job of the writer is not to use these details too tactlessly, not to offer them a burden they cannot hold. They must be telling and also seem natural. In a story they also have to have a sort of magic about them.

    The names of the places in "Passion" are remarkably ordinary; there is a constant use of tentative description, in which Grace "has located Sabot Lake, or thinks she has" and in which the village may not really be a village "because she does not see a post office or even the most unpromising convenience store." This sense of things studied carefully and reported accurately runs right through the story. "Mr. Travers had built the house," we are told. And then: "that is, he'd had it built."

    Everything said about Mr. and Mrs. Travers at the beginning of the story makes clear that they are neither good nor bad, and installs the illusion that they may be ordinary. Her telling stories and imitating people; his friendly taciturn nature. They can be read either way, as signs of uneasiness or signs of ease.

    Grace is both the central consciousness of the story and an aspect of the reader. The reader, too, is more interested in Mrs. Travers and her household than in her son Maury. Thus Grace's interest in seeing the family rather than dating the son is made to seem natural, almost ordinary too. Even the bitterness of her response to "Father of the Bride" seems part of her general intelligence, although it is also the first real clue offered that she is trouble, or troubled, or both.

    The story is a set of unfoldings. First the framing sequence, then the Travers couple, then the story of how Grace met them; then, when we have seen Grace respond to a number of things and feel we know her slightly, Grace's background is offered.

    The story now can go many ways. It is open for Maury and Grace to marry; it is open for Maury and Grace to break up; it is open for Grace to fall in love with Mrs. Travers; it is open for Grace to remember this summer simply as the beginning of her education. Instead, much stranger, more bizarre, and more engaging things are about to happen. The extraordinary thing is that we think we know Grace as a character before they happen, as she thinks she knows herself. She seems quiet, watchful, a conformist. Opinionated and ambitious, but polite.

    The first sign comes with Mavis, the wife of Neil, a doctor, who is the son from Mrs. Travers's first marriage. She is an outsider in the family, ready to disrupt the harmony, the very opposite, it seems, of Grace. Neil, her husband, does not appear until almost halfway through the story and then only as described by his mother: "Neil is very bright. I don't mean that Maury isn't--you certainly don't get to be an engineer without a brain or two in your head--but Neil is . . . He's deep."

    Soon afterward it emerges that Mrs. Travers is not merely funny and wise and intriguing; she also suffers. Such ease as hers has its dark side, and this discovery is also part of Grace's education.

    The events that make all the difference happen on Thanksgiving Day. The great family occasion is punctured first by Grace's breaking her sandal and then cutting her foot. This is a cue for Neil to arrive, and the story now needs a most skillful teller so that it can be turned and refocused, like someone working with glass, where one wrong turn of the wrist will destroy a most ambitious project.

    The moment where the real genius of the story shows is when Grace is in the emergency ward and she has one second to decide to stay with Neil, who she knows is drunk, or to go with Maury, who she knows is dull. The reader will at least expect her to consider the matter, but, strangely and subtly, all the reader's expectations have been undermined. We notice in the exchange on which everything depends that Grace remains silent. But she is not absent. We can almost hear her breathing. And finally when she is asked if she wants to go home now, she replies: "No." She says it "as if she'd seen the word written in front of her, on the wall. As if she were having her eyes tested."

    She is not the character she thought she was, or we imagined she was. She emerges, like the story itself, as surprising and complex. The story offers no character who is easy to explain, or whose motives or actions follow simply from their clearly delineated personality. And this goes against the grain of pure simplicity and controlled clarity in the prose and becomes, for that, all the more surprising and, at times, almost alarming. This way of hiding the sheer complex nature of Grace by making her appear simple and natural is part of the pure genius of the story.