Staff Picks: Our Favorite Short Stories
Alternating Current Staff pick their favorite short stories for Short Story Month.
Continuing our month-long celebration of Short Story Month, Alternating Current staffers share some of their favorite short stories with you. Click on the titles to read the stories if they are available online or to find the bound collections that contain each selection.
IN THE DRY
Breece D’J Pancake
Susan Straight loaned me Breece D’J Pancake’s collected short stories almost the moment that I met her at my MFA’s introductory potluck. I brought goulash, dined, dashed, and drove eleven hours through the night to Portland, Oregon, for a very long breakup. I almost forgot about Pancake, but was lucky to have him on my return, as he returned me, for a time, to the land (near) my birth. Pancake was a West Virginia writer, and one who achieved very little fame, though he has plenty of critical praise.
My favorite of Pancake’s is “In the Dry,” a story of a truck driver named Otto, returned to his estranged home to face a list of folk that he’d be hard-pressed to get more tangled-up with. Each relationship is convoluted, one thing at face and another to his back. The dry valley home is heavy with memory. The one that hangs over everyone is a misunderstood car ride off a bridge, the wreck of which permanently disfigured Otto and put his cousin, Buster, in a wheelchair with little to occupy it but a shell of his former self. The critical moment of that wreck gets unfolded throughout the story but is still left thick with uncertainty. Just as I don’t think Otto knows why he’s come back to his old home, I don’t think we’re meant to know anything in this story for sure. The story is a long one, but it seems that almost every moment in it could encapsulate the whole. For instance:
“One by one, he picks up the fallen leaves nearest him, gathers them to himself with the years of hurried life. Feeling the crinkled edges of a scorched leaf, he sees, in the last of light, colors still splotching its skin. Everything is so far away, so buried, and he knows more than any buck-skull turned them all.”
There’s something so perfect in the beauty and bitterness of Pancake’s prose, something so like the life I know. He dwells in harmony with the physical and psychic, each moment captured accurately, but captured through the inaccurate lens of someone’s mind. It’s a wonderful gift he had, and I think “In the Dry” is his best expression of it.
BURNING HOT GIRLS
My favorite short story is “Burning Hot Girls” by Pela Via. I love the absurdity of the piece. The beauty standard in America is some bullshit, and “Burning Hot Girls” speaks to that bullshit with much style and humor.
I picked three stories that I can remember either thinking this is my favorite story, or, I really need to tell people about this one, or, I wish I had written one like this. To me, they all represent what is great about short stories. I love and remember these characters and their actions as much as I do any novels I’ve read over the last few years.
Elizabeth McCracken’s “Something Amazing,” from her collection, Thunderstruck, is indeed amazing and also ridiculously close to perfection. I loved it the first time and, when I re-read it, found a hundred more things to love about it. It’s the story of a grieving mother, Pamela Goodby, and her encounter with a five-year-old neighbor boy named Johnny who is home from school because his rebellious nine-year-old brother, Santos, locked him in their grandmother’s trunk. This intersection between Pamela and Johnny leads the mother and her seventeen-year-old son, Gerry, to a different stage of grief and releases the ghost of her dead six-year-old daughter, Missy.
It has a perfect setup, immediately haunting by instantiating the streets where Johnny and Santos play, where kids spread stories about the ghost of Missy and her “witch” mother:
“Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”
It has a perfect escalation of conflict where the memories of the little girl freeze in time a mother and her teen son.
“Now Pamela feels the world shake and thinks, Mexican jumping bean. She can’t decide whether the house is the bean and she’s the worm, or the bean is her body and the worm her soul.”
It has a perfect ending: resolution for some and a new conflict for others, as if Pamela’s pain is contagious, even for the reader.
Ramona Ausubel’s “Poppyseed,” from her collection, A Guide to Being Born, takes a different look at parental grief. What if your child hasn’t died — but she just barely lives? What about grieving for the living? “Poppyseed” is a heartbreaking story about a couple with a young daughter named Poppy. She is their
“[…] stunted eight-year-old. She didn’t meet our eyes, but she did make some noises: she did hold our fingers in each of her fists. Laura’s in her right and mine in her left.”
Each parent deals with this differently. Laura writes letters to Poppy that the girl will never be able to read. At the museum where Roger works, he reluctantly befriends a curious eight-year-old girl named Madeline. As the two adults weave through accepting their parental weight, Poppy approaches an early puberty, and they come up with a medical solution described in one of Laura’s letters like an unforgettably intense punch to the gut.
THE BEAUTY TREATMENT
Stacey Richter’s “The Beauty Treatment,” from her collection, My Date with Satan, takes us to the world of rich high school girls. Richter is a great short story writer. She finds beauty in the blunt, the eccentric, and the grit. “The Beauty Treatment” begins when a character known as The Bitch stabs the main character in the cheek with a razor blade. Her reaction is classic Richter:
“I swear to God, I thought she’d pried off her braces. I thought she’d worked one of those bands free and was holding it up to show me how proud she was to have broken loose of what we referred to, in our charming teenage banter, as oral bondage. The next thing I know there’s blood all over my J. Crew linen fitted blouse, in edelweiss — a very delicate, almost ecru shade of white, ruined now.”
The character has to deal with her physical recovery and with her parents and the aftermath with The Bitch who used to be her best friend. One hilarious flashback reveals their dispute started over an argument over the singer Brandy. The climax of the story takes place in the office of a shrink who has brought the two girls together to help them each find closure.
Ron Rash quickly became one of my favorite American writers after I read the story collection, Burning Bright, and his ferocious novel about the early 20th century logging industry in North Carolina, Serena. “The Ascent” is a perfect example of how Rash is able to plant pure humanity in the middle of unthinkable pain and suffering. A young boy wanders aimlessly in the woods, far from his house and addict parents, and he stumbles across the wreckage of a plane that had been missing for days. This young boy from a meth-ravaged home finds comfort in what would scar many of us for life. No matter the content of Rash’s stories, be it the violent or mundane, each is rooted in some brand of simple truth and human nature.
THE SMILE ON HAPPY CHANG’S FACE
I can thank Michael Chabon for choosing “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” as the first story in his edition of The Best American Short Stories in 2005. Otherwise, I don’t know when or if I’d have found it. This is the story of a father, estranged from his family, who umpires a little league baseball championship in the type of town that televises such things. As the game plays out, his mind swings from a punch he’ll always regret, the inexplicable allure of a petite and dominate female pitcher, and a coach that he resents.
A CLEAN, WELL-LIGHTED PLACE
Going all the way back to my high school years, I’d call this my “first favorite story.” It’s a story that exists more in the characters’ perceptions of what is true, rather than just what happens on the page. Hemingway reveals the assumptions and prejudices that overwhelm the young and the old, and the kindness that naturally seems to surface with old age. Starting from its title, I see this story in my head with more clarity than perhaps any story I’ve read since.
LITTLE EXPRESSIONLESS ANIMALS
David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s fiction can be hard work. If you’ve ever tried to tackle Infinite Jest, then you know what I’m talking about. But its difficulties don’t lead to a lack of enjoyment. Wallace noted on several occasions that he appreciated his readers because he knew it took more work than average readers might be willing to put in. In my experience, the payoff is undoubtedly worth it. “Little Expressionless Animals” is the story of a record-breaking Jeopardy run (That’s an understatement.), an abandoned brother and sister, and some hilarious rivalries between Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak. As only Wallace can, he’s able to build an absurd story that still speaks truth about abandonment, compassion, a culture of mass media, sexuality, and the insoluble scars that develop throughout our lives.
— Tim Wasem