Beginning at the Beginning

Review of American Short Fiction, Winter/Spring 2008 by Becky Tuch


We are all amateurs at the beginning. And while the latest issue of American Short Fiction includes strictly established authors, beginning writers can take heart: The well-established also had to sit in the slush pile before getting discovered and they too had their share of rejection letters. Thanks to some in-depth biographical notes, we are able to see how important American Short Fiction (and literary magazines in general) has been in launching the careers of some of our now-favorite writers. For its fortieth anniversary issue, this journal has done a beautiful job of showcasing the talent and diversity of its contributors, while also announcing itself as a significant fixture in many authors' lives.

On the subject of California, however, the magazine is not so upbeat. At least, Don Lee's "Wrack and Ruin" and Kate Braverman's "What the Shipwrecked Know" don't have much good to say about the golden state. To Lyndon, Lee's delightfully grumpy protagonist, Rosarita Bay is becoming over-gentrified and irritating. One of the initial attractions to the small town south of San Francisco had been that the residents "weren't so much environmentalists or conservationalists but isolationists--independent spirits, loners, libertarians, iconoclasts, garden-variety curmudgeons, people such as Lyndon, who, on principle, did not like other people, regardless of whether they meant well or not."

Both Lee and Braverman's protagonists grapple with their surroundings, Lyndon looking on with dread as his small town becomes made over and Braverman's young girl feeling nothing but disgust at what she sees of California. A self-described "troubled adolescent," Braverman's protagonist regards the Californian cities as "reptilian," with their "sides of mirrored scales." Later, "These trees are shabby and limp, like somebody tried to shred their branches, yanking with their fingernails." Neighborhoods "abruptly abort," the ocean is "punched-awake cobalt," and the aspen shake "in spasms." In her most disturbing vision, the waves are "curling like lips in an infinitely infected mouth."

It is safe to say that neither Lee nor Braverman will be working for California's office of tourism anytime soon.

Dagoberto Gilb's novel excerpt, "The Flowers" is set in an un-named city. In their introduction to the journal, the editors locate the city as Los Angeles. It is a reasonable assumption, given the warm climate and the mix of cultures, of street life blending with residential. "The Flowers" is from the point of view of a young boy, more cheerful than Braverman's protagonist, but no less afraid of the adult world.

The story is brief and quickly paced, moving from table conversation to a potentially dangerous situation in which the young protagonist enters a car with the black man from next door, Mr. Pink, who had been the very subject of another character's derogatory remarks earlier. One senses that the young boy enters the car not only because he is curious, but also to spite his step-father. We come to like the protagonist and to sympathize with his position of uncertainty. He is clearly trying to defy the rigid beliefs of his step-father, even if it means putting himself in danger.

The center of the journal contains a series of half-page stories cum bios cum thank you letters from authors as diverse as Ken Chowder, Michael Guista and Don Lee. The writers discuss the significance of ASF in their writing lives. For Chowder, "[ASF] proved to be the death knell of my literary career," wherupon he "fled the sunlit land of fiction...for the wave-tossed pea green netherworld of nonfiction." On the other hand, Guista writers, "ASF was my first publication in a major journal, over ten years ago, and it wasn't long after that an agent read the story and I got a call from him asking to see more work."

The excerpts range from grateful to matter-of-fact to downright bizarre. Will Allison writes that a woman he knew also had a story published in ASF around the time his story appeared, and they went on to get married. Meanwhile, Don Lee doesn't thank ASF directly, but uses the platform to comically self-deprecate, writing "What had been preventing me from completing a book had been fear. Fear of failure...Now I fear obsolescence, paltry sales, bad reviews, irrelevance as an author, and, most of all, that I am spent, there's nothing left in the well, there will be no more books forthcoming, that's it, baby, that's all there is, the light is out, I never had any real talent as writer. At least, if nothing else, I can say I'm emotionally consistent as a writer."

Following these excerpts is Guista's short story "The Good Guy." This is one of those rare second-person narratives that doesn't come across as pretentious or invasive. Instead it is compelling and poignant. The protagonist is a medicated depressive, stuck in traffic with his daughter, an embittered and resentful teenager. He wasn't a very good husband and hasn't been a particularly great dad either. Yet through his drugged haze, his point of view is delightful. He is trying to be a good dad. He is trying to do the right thing, even if he is so out of it that he's not exactly sure what that right thing is.

Guista himself attributes the success of the second person here to the fact that the main character is medicated, "so detached he barely recognizes himself." Indeed, that is what makes the story work. One has the feeling that it is not the author trying to tell the reader that you did this and you did that. Instead, it is the protagonist merely trying to catch up to himself and to get a grip on reality.

In "The Glazers," we meet another young protagonist who is visiting her boyfriend's family for the first time. Joyce Carol Oates has such a mellifluous and natural writing style that one has the sense that she has just set down her last project (novel #60? Essay #400?) and continued on through to the next one. Different characters, different scenario, different setting. Same dramatic internal lives, same casual terrors, same sustained intensity with a most unexpected end.