The Best American Short Stories 2010
The Best American Short Stories 2010

Mariner Books /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
448 pp., $24.95

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Linda McCullough Moore

Best American Short Stories 2010

How to say the unsayable.

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This contest rages on in the stunning story "Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events," by Kevin Moffett. Here a father and son "write truish stories about fathers and sons," the son well-schooled and long-practiced, the father brand new to the game, but each masterful at those lies which tell the truth. What a good story this is. I turned down the corners of almost every page, some with two or three folds. I laughed out loud, and sighed, and longed to have my father (and my mother and my brothers and my sister and a few inquisitive neighbors) take up fiction writing. Long-remembered scenes of this son's boyhood find their explanation in his father's stories. The son has always puzzled over an odd and random trip to the town dump when he was a small boy. This shows up in his father's story as a pilgrimage to all the things that once belonged to his dead wife. An equally perplexing trip to Mexico turns out to have been one last vain attempt to save her young life. The truth here: "Anything worth saying is unsayable. That's why we tell stories." That's why, I think, we read them. For explanation of those old mysteries that mark our dreams and haunt our wakings. For answers, or at the very least, for worthy questions.

In Moffett's story, the son must struggle to find the stories he must tell. He goes looking. In a cemetery, he comes upon a man lying in front of a headstone, "practicing for eternity." "What moments made any other moment than this impossible?" (Talk about fine questions.) And others: Did the old man take a taxi here? At some point will he stand up and go off and buy himself some lunchmeat? Everything that happens hints at meaning, is enriched by context, and is made more bearable by humor and perspective. Understanding is not incidental, it is pivotal and curative.

Moffett's irony is honed to pure delight. No wisecrack satire here, but rather a warmhearted acknowledgement that a lot of things in life are really very funny, and there is healing in our laughter. In the introduction, Russo quotes an aged Isaac Bashevis Singer saying that the purpose of a story is to entertain and to instruct, and Russo adds: "The desire to show people a good time is a generous impulse rooted in humility. The writer comes to us bearing a gift he hopes will please us."

And so this story does. Moffett deals brilliantly with the interplay of writing and living. "It isn't a story," the son says. "I'm living it." Art and life, and that thin, moving line between. Watching his father holding his new wife's hand, taking unselfconscious pleasure in a children's dolphin show, the son feels "like we were at an auction, bidding on the same item." Forced to acknowledge his admiration for his father's writing, he feels "as if I'd swallowed a stone. I felt it settling and the moss starting to cover it." "In the deadness of the dark room, there is the stone-on-stone sound of a crypt top sliding closed as soon as I began drifting to sleep." The father-son thing, no mean matter. But in the end, this father who can shake a gift-wrapped Christmas present and tell if it is biography or autobiography, gives his son a gift and tells him to hold it up to his ear and shake it. "Listen. Don't think. Listen," he says. "Listen harder."

In so many of these stories, there are poignant hints and whispers, but no one who attempts to listen. In a recent NPR interview, a famed atheist, now terminally ill, betrayed some interest in the idea of living forever, or, at least not ever dying. But he, like the writers of these stories, seeks nothing in reality to correspond to universal longings, nothing in word or sentiment to question the arrangements for our sure annihilation. It's not just that there's no wonder; there is no wondering.

A despondent rancher in Maggie Shipstead's story "The Cowboy Tango" lies "alone in his bed, joined in the silent chorus of the unloved. It seemed that his longing and the moment when day tipped over into night were made out of the same stuff, aching and purple." In the last line of the final story, "Raw Water," Wells Tower writes, "Far above the eastern hills, a council of clouds shed a gray fringe of moisture. The promise of rain was a glad sight in the mournful scene, though in fact this was a rain of a frail kind, turning to vapor a mile above the brown land, never to be of use to women and men on earth."

And that's the story.

Linda McCullough Moore lives and writes short stories in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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