As with almost all of these categories, it’s tough to narrow down to just five favorites, but here goes:
5. Thomas Wolfe, “The Lost Boy,” in The American Short Story, ed. Thomas K. Parkes. I’ve got a big soft spot for Thomas Wolfe, so it’s difficult for me to be objective. This story presages the death of the older brother in Look Homeward, Angel and shows the flashes of energy and passion that characterize Wolfe’s later corpus.
4. Alice Munro, “Corrie,” New Yorker (October 11, 2010). A Saskatchewan affair, but with a Joyce-Carol-Oatesish twist at the end.
3. Jonathan Safran Foer, “How We Aren’t, So Quickly,” in the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” series. 2 pages of second-person, chronological fireworks on a marriage. Fabulous. Gave me new respect for Foer.
And I have to award a tie for the number 1 spot:
1. Carson McCullers, “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories. Here is one of the tiny treasures of American short fiction–a compressed little hymn to love, sort of Evelyn Waugh with a southern accent, but without his snobbishness or verbosity. What McCullers accomplishes here in about 1700 words took Walker Percy an entire novel. Consider just this little snippet as the old man begins to explain his “science” (starts to make Walker Percy look derivative, doesn’t it?):
“It is this. And listen carefully. I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?”
The boy’s soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.
“A woman,” the old man said. “Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God’s earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?”
“Yeah,” the boy said faintly.
“They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?”
The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.
“Son, do you know how love should be begun?”
The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:
“A tree. A rock. A cloud.”
It was still raining outside in the street: a mild, gray, endless rain. The mill whistle blew for the six o’clock shift and the three spinners paid and went away. There was no one in the café but Leo, the old man, and the little paper boy.
I dream of writing a story that could even be a shadow of McCuller’s accomplishment.
1. David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon,” in Oblivion. In.cred.i.ble. Not sure what else to say. It seems to me that this story is at the core of DFW’s entire corpus and gets at some of the philosophical and literary problems that occupied Wallace over his entire writing career. Here we get the classic stream-of-consciousness reflections of a recent suicide–the proverbial “final thoughts” in which your life flashes before your eyes, but which now seem to come to us as a postmortem missive. Thus Wallace both appropriates and deconstructs the cliche–a common strategy throughout his work. So “Good Old Neon” is a story that is constantly aware of the seeming impossibility of telling one’s story, what the narrator describes as a “paradox”:
This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one slit-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.–and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.
But maybe that’s just enough.