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The Best American Short Stories 2007

Stephen King (ed)
Heidi Pitlor (series ed)

He looked like bad news. He looked liked the letter edged in black, the telegram shoved under your door at three o'clock in the morning. "

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

In their stirring introduction to the latest addition to the Best American series, Heidi Pitlor and Stephen King make much of how many thousands of stories they read to put this collection together; their explanations of the selection process certainly add to the fun of deciding whether each story present is really the best America has to offer. Pitlor talks about being “drawn to stories that transcended something” while King describes looking for “something that comes at me full-bore, like a big hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky.” Is it unfair to say that after all this build-up I felt underwhelmed? There was some great writing here but these were not always great stories: unlike the editors I only seldom felt either transformed or blown out of the sky. 

The opening story, Louis Auchincloss's Pa’s Darling, illustrates this perfectly. Technically it was strong, with a very polished, period voice, but to me it felt lifeless. At the beginning the main character asks of her father:

“Did he really value me very much? Did he even value women very much?”
While she spends the next 11 pages answering her own question in the resounding negative, there is no sense of revelation or change in the character. 

Other stories worked considerably better. I enjoyed the oddball melancholy of John Barth's  Toga Party, particularly the understated yet perfect ending, which cut through sometimes excessive verbiage to draw the story together. Eileen Pollack's The Bris was a bonkers-tender look at a father-son relationship and the lies we live so easily – half screwball comedy, half existential tragedy. TC Boyle's Balto, a gorgeously written story of childish intensity and betrayal, kept me hooked to the final line:

“...and the bank of windows so brilliant with light you would have thought a bomb had gone off there, and looked directly at her father.” 

A more surreal thread was represented by Karen Russell's St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a brilliant fable on human relationships told through a group of wolf children being slowly and painfully naturalised. William Gay's Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You abandoned the sumptuous brownstones and campus settings favoured by many stories to paint a grim portrait of crystal meth addiction in a Southern wilderness where every action has a mythic dimension. 

Perhaps it's the title that made this a difficult book to get to grips with. America is a big place, and there was a sense that this collection was trying not only to represent the best but also to showcase that diversity. A worthy aim but it perhaps resulted in a lack of energy and coherence, which I have not noticed in other (wilfully diverse) collections of American shorts. Ultimately I was left with a handful of brilliant stories out of a collection that, while finely written, did not convince me it represented America's best.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson started writing shorts as an excuse not to redraft The Novel and now can't kick the habit. Born in Dublin, she lives in London where she works as a writer and editor. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and www.pulp.net. The Novel is coming along nicely despite the lure of more concise forms.

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"   

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

PublisherHoughton Mifflin Company

Publication Date: 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

Book Website: TheBestAmerican ShortStories.com

First anthology?No

Editor bios: Stephen King has written over 60 books, including Misery, The Green Mile and Lisey's Story as well as around 400 short stories, including “The Man in the Black Suit”, which won the 1996 O Henry Prize.  Heidi Pitlor was raised in Concord, Massachusetts. She received her BA in political science from McGill University in Montreal, and her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She is a former senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, and she is the author of the novel The Birthdays, published in 2006 by W. W. Norton. She lives outside Boston with her husband, daughter, and son.

Authors: Louis Auchincloss, John Barth, Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, Randy DeVita, Joseph Epstein, William Gay, Mary Gordon, Lauren Groff, Beverly Jensen, Roy Kesey, Stellar Kim, Aryn Kyle, Bruce McAllister, Alice Munro, Eileen Pollack, Karen Russell, Richard Russo, Jim Shepard, Kate Walbert

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