On pinning down the short story

It may be that the short story in America will be remembered as a mostly 20th-century phenomenon, preceded by the great novels of the 19th century and superseded by the 21st century’s Internet, entertainment, and social media age.

The short story in the United States held a place of honor throughout most of the last century, but more recently it has been confined to a few widely circulated magazines and a large number of literary journals with small to minimal circulation.

If the short story is, in fact, destined for a minor role – it will never entirely disappear, as it’s needed to feed the entertainment industry – I can at least count myself among the generations that enjoyed the form during its halcyon days. Having both read and written a fair number of stories, I fully appreciate its potential.

Over a period of several months, I made my way through the 800 pages of The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and published in 1999. It was a pleasure to read the 55 stories, in strict chronological order, originally published from 1915 (“Zelig” by Benjamin Rosenblatt) to 1998 (“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx).

I’m usually immersed in reading a novel, and it was good to remind myself of the range, possibility, and beauty of the short story form.

In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” two stories – one of which is apocryphal – intertwine. Mero is compelled by the funeral of his brother to travel from Massachusetts back to the Wyoming ranch he escaped sixty years before. “Maybe, he thought, things hadn’t finished turning out.” Meanwhile, he is remembering the story of Tin Head the rancher, who half-skins a steer and then leaves it, not quite dead, while he has dinner and a nap. As Mero again faces the unforgiving environment of his past (‘the half-skinned steer’), he realizes that things hadn’t finishing ‘turning out,’ and that, as Tin Head says, “he is done for and all of his kids and their kids is done for, and that his wife is done for and that every one of her blue dishes has got to break, and the dog that licked the blood is done for, and the house where they lived has to blow away or burn up and every fly or mouse in it.”

In a masterly short story like this one and the others in this collection, all of life is compressed into a few pages, full of ‘telling’ detail and indirect reference. There is no leisure in the short form, as there is in a novel. We are thrust into the center of the drama at once, and very soon after tossed out again, the impress of the experience carved into our psyche. The 20th century American experience is served up, decade by decade, through each story’s superbly rendered characters.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is Joyce Carol Oates’ paean to the beauty and self-centered nature of the fifteen-year-old girl about to be raped by adulthood. Whether held hostage by our past, as is Mero, or our future, as is Oates’ Connie, we are fated to pay for the sins of our fathers, as well as for our temerity in taking on the possibilities of our own life.

In a great short story, we cut closer to our emotional core than in, perhaps, any other form, with the exception of the most accomplished poetry. We cling obsessively to our dreams, as does Zelig, who longs to return to his native Russia, hoarding every penny he earns and sacrificing his son toward that end. We explore the nether reaches of pain and the unfeeling ‘other’ as do Pansy in Jean Stafford’s “The Interior Castle.” and Rosa in Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl.” We acknowledge life’s serio-comic dilemmas, along with the Jewish infantryman in Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” and Raymond Carver’s alcoholic narrator in “Where I’m Calling From.” We feel the pitiless, tragic intensity of impending death “upon the doomed living” as we read Richard Wright’s “Bright and Morning Star.”

In Saul Bellow’s delightful “A Silver Dish,” the narrator, reflecting on the character of his father, says, “It’s usually the selfish people who are loved the most. They do what you deny yourself, and you love them for it. You give them your heart.” After his father dies, the narrator goes on to say, “You could never pin down that self-willed man. When he was ready to make his move, he made it – always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.”

And that’s why I continue to give my heart to a very good short story. It’s self-absorbed and self-absorbing. It refuses to be pinned down. It unfolds on its own terms. And it always has something up its sleeve.

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