Short stories: two top new collections; Prize Stories 1981: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams. New York: Doubleday & Co. $13.95. The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon. Introduction by Robert Penn Warren. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. $15.
Willaim Abrahams, O. Henry Prize Stories editor, has taken a new direction this year and decided to award only a First Prize. It's important to remember, Abrahams says, that all these stories are winners, merely by their inclusion in the collection. But this year's First would be in a special category off by itself in any collection.
Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," originally published in The New Yorker, is inspired by the Holocaust. It is a rare writer indeed who can make art of this ugliest of human tragedies. This tale, only slightly removed from reality, will behard for some readers to bear. Abraham's point in choosing it is that so far few writers have dared to use the subject in fiction. "The Shawl" is the story of a mother's love as she hides her babe inside a shawl on her way to an unknown destiny. There is no happy ending.
One good reason for faithfully reading the O. Henrys every year (besides keeping up with the best current short fiction), and even for going back to a collection for a given year, is that they make a record, in filtered form, of the issues of our times. In this volume, for instance, are sensitive stories about such issues as abortion, divorce, and homosexuality.
There is an inordinate amount of writing that borders on the fantastic in this collection, but perhaps even that escapism is indicative of our times. At least one story is just plain gory.
But ther is genuine humor to be found in spurts in this collection as well. Most of the chuckles to be had are contained in John irving's "Interior Space," which editor Abrahams has kindlay placed directly after Ozick's "The Shawl."
In "The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon" one has an opportunity to see how well a given story speaks for its Creator's sense of literary timelessness. Many of these stories were first published in the 1930s, and, like the stories of William Faulkner, they speak of a ruined civilization that is now barely visible to us: the Old South. But these tales are not merely geographical reports on the demise of a culture. They are all records of the struggles of the human spirit to survive.
Professor Maury, often a character in Ms. Gordon's fiction, is an outsider who merely married into the Southern family around which many of these stories revolve. Professor Maury is Ms. Gordon's ultimate vision of the country gentleman: courtly to men and protective of women, always fair and loyal to his friends, he is a sportsman, a fisherman, a poet. When a female friend is wronged by her husband, an elderly Professor Maury hurts for her in his own terms. "He had been ill . . . for two weeks. She had nursed him well and he had recovered. . . . But here was a kind of death. She lay there like a shot bird."
This nonflowery description of a woman's suffering is significant because it is presented from the point of view of a man. And herein lies a clue to Gordon's lasting appeal.
There are very few woman writers who have thus far created believable, sensitive men. Ms. Gordon is one of the few who have.
Violence, when it occurs here, is always under the surface, not experienced outright. It is perhaps only another sad remark upon our own day if one in a while these stories happen to strike us as too gentle.