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Readers' Delight: Best Fiction and Nonfiction

While short stories are less artistic in 1996 than earlier in the century, this year's essays are the best they've ever been

The Best America Essays: 1996

Edited by Geoffrey C. Ward and Robert Atwan

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Houghton Mifflin

370 pp., $27 (cloth)

$12.95 (paper)

The Best American

Short Stories: 1996

Edited by John Edgar Wideman and Katrina Kenison

Houghton Mifflin

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363 pp., $25 (cloth)

$12.95 (paper)

Here's an annual treat for all who follow developments in current American prose: this year's versions of "The Best American Short Stories" and "The Best American Essays."

A mere glance at the tables of contents might make a book lover grab one or both collections for the daily train or bus commute or the bedside table.

As usual, each volume's contents are selected by a distinguished guest editor backed up by an industrious series editor and staff who have surveyed nearly every story and essay published in the United States and Canada in the past 12 months.

Who could resist titles like "Slouching Toward Washington," "The Incredible Appearing Man," "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis"?

As a literary diptych, these two books portray the contrasting states of our contemporary fiction and nonfiction: American essay writing has never been better, while current American fiction, compared with writing earlier this century, is lower in artistic quality though high in social merit.

Rich essays

In the past few decades, a rich stew of expository prose has bubbled up covering a nearly infinite range of topics and producing continual, superb examples of the American essay.

The 1996 collection illustrates the genre's basic divide since Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon independently pioneered the essay more than 400 years ago. Some of these essays show a Montaigne-like introspection or mental play, like such delightful selections as Nicholson Baker's "Books as Furniture," and Joseph Epstein's "The Art of the Nap."

More frequently, however, and typically for pragmatic America, these essays are more extroverted or didactic in the Baconian tradition.

In this vein we have well-written scientific essays on owls, black widow spiders, and the nature of diseases; political pieces on Indira Ghandi's assassination and the Million Man March on Washington; an absorbing socio-environmental discussion of "The Trouble With Wilderness"; and even an academically stilted but arresting report, "Understanding Afrocentrism: Why Blacks Dream of a World Without Whites."

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates is the only writer to appear in both volumes, although neither her story nor her essay is among the finest works here.

This award-winning author illustrates the failing of contemporary American fiction in general: The artistic quality of her work, like fiction generally today, does not reach the heights attained by great writers earlier in this century.

Very few 20th-century American authors have been more prolific or enjoyed more success than Oates, and her ghost story and her essay on abandoned homes are thoroughly competent. Yet few literary critics would find in her style and themes the greatness of earlier authors such as Ernest Hemingway or Edith Wharton.

On the other hand, these writers succeeded in part because of their wealthy, socially prominent families. So if the poor farm girl Oates had been born 50 years earlier, into a less socially progressive American society, her worthy productions might never have appeared in print.

Democracy of fiction

If contemporary American literature hasn't yet matched the greatness of the best of this century's achievements, at least, as the 1996 collection demonstrates, US authors today represent a much broader cross-section of society.

It is heartening and fascinating to meet, in this collection, fine works not only by women who are not wealthy, but also those by African-Americans, Latinos, and Americans whose families have arrived recently from three parts of Asia. (The absence of a work or two by some of our excellent native American writers is regrettable.)

These stories take us into social and ethnic environments unexplored by American fiction during the first half of this century. In addition, these fine contemporary works illustrate the two directions in which this long-lived genre has tended since its prehistoric origin around nomadic campfires.

An inclination toward description of society in various eras occurs in most stories, as the word's origin from the Latin "historia" indicates. But on the other hand, all stories were originally spoken. Thus, narration is emphasized in many fascinating representatives of this genre.

Appropriately then, some of the best stories here take us into absorbing, rarely portrayed social scenes like the life of a Chinese family struggling with its cultural traditions while trying to excel in America; an independent-minded woman's view of her own traditional Hindu marriage; and a Great Plains boy's retrospective guilt as he recalls how a lie he told led to the suicide of his juvenile delinquent brother.

Other fine stories here emphasize narration to help us feel the pitiably degraded life of junkie homosexual prostitutes, the bizarre comedy of a jealous husband reincarnated as a parrot, and the exhilaration of life lived close to nature in Montana's high country.

For the reader with broad interests in American society and writing, few of these stories will disappoint. Even a prominent misquotation from a Robert Frost poem doesn't jar much.

In an appendix to the short-story volume, the authors discuss their stories and their writing in general.

Dan Chaon, one of several young writers included, mentions the stimulating pleasure for him as a writer of "having a switch in my brain flipped on by some wonderful story or poem."

Of course, nonwriters too can experience such inspiring literary flips of mental switches. Both these collections proffer many such opportunities.

Two of the Best, From Montana to Brooklyn

For a taste of each collection at its best, try Rick Bass's story "Fires," and Ian Frazier's essay, "Take the F."

Bass evokes the wild, big sky country of Montana, as an individualist settler describes his way of life and tells of a lost chance for love. Bass's Hemingway-esque narration conveys the appeal of this remaining American frontier and invests it with philosophical depth:

"We'd leave the meadows ... and head up the South Fork road, up into the woods, toward the summit, going past my cabin. The sun would be burning brightly by the time we neared the summit, and we'd be up into the haze from the planting fires, and everything would be foggy and old-looking, as if we had gone back in time - as if we were living in a time when things had really happened, when things still mattered and not everything had been decided yet."

Frazier's essay on Brooklyn, where Manhattan's F train leads, invites us to observe and esteem the heady, gritty variety of the New York borough's middle- and lower-class ethnic mix.

One comic passage describes how urbanized subway passengers react to a sea crab that has boarded the train at the Coney Island station. Later we can marvel at the variety of Brooklynites - from immigrants waiting to vote in a Russian election, to cabbies sporting "Allah Is Great" bumper stickers, to Haitians rallying for President Aristide, to a Jewish sect celebrating "their Grand Rebbe with a procession of ninety-three motor homes - one for each year of his life."

*Carl Wood, after two decades as an English professor, is in international business.

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