Books
9:26 am
Mon March 10, 2008

Tartts Three: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers

Tartts Three is a collection of twenty-three stories. One-hundred-seventy story collections were submitted to the third annual Tartt First Fiction Award contest. After choosing the winning collections, the editors went on to select the twenty-three best individual stories from the hundreds of stories entered. There is not a loser in the bunch.

There may be fewer short stories than ever published in national magazines and nearly no magazines devoted solely to the short story. It may be that publishers seek novels, not collections of stories. But, in spite of all this, writers continue to make stories, and the quality, perhaps because of the proliferation of MFA programs in America, is very high.

Tartts Three is a collection of twenty-three stories. One-hundred-seventy story collections were submitted to the third annual Tartt First Fiction Award contest. After choosing the winning collections, the editors went on to select the twenty-three best individual stories from the hundreds of stories entered. There is not a loser in the bunch.

Xujun Eberlein is a story writer who grew up in China and came to the U.S. in 1988. Her collection won the Tartt Award. Her story in this volume, "Pivot Point," has the wonderful, nearly invaluable advantage of having a setting unfamiliar to the reader and dealing with issues unknown to the reader. (Hemingway was similarly lucky, or wise, when he set stories in East Africa and on charter fishing boats in the Gulf Stream.) Eberlein's protagonist is a twenty-six-year-old single Chinese woman who had been sent to the country for "reeducation" at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. She is in love with a married man, not a rare situation, but in China conditions for romance are claustrophobic, stultifying. The young woman, living in a tiny room in her parents' house, cannot get housing of her own; there is no privacy to be had. The affair takes some universal turns but ends, as a story entitled "Pivot Point" should, with a twist. She will go west, not to die?as the folk adage has it, but to study philosophy in America.

The runner-up for the Tartt Award was Carol Manley, whose story, "Gucci Junior in Iraq," is a kind of study in the power of language, told in the first person, done in dialect, and a successful blend of the comic and the unbearably sad. A pious Christian lady, Louella, calls the speaker to get on over to Elegeen's house to counsel Elegeen. Poor Elegeen has let the worthless Gucci Sr. back into her place, feeling sentimental because their son, Gucci Jr., is serving in Iraq. Elegeen says when Jr. returns, she will have a pair of Guccis. While paying this odd semi-pastoral call, the speaker notices two sharply dressed Army men coming up the sidewalk and knows, without hesitation, what that means. She goes onto the front stoop, pretends to be Elegeen, takes their letter of condolence, and burns it. The narrator here is indulging in a kind of linguistic magical thinking: "Ain't nothing in the world happened till somebody gets word that it did." When Elegeen learns that her son is dead, she will suffer for the rest of her life; there's no hurry about getting started.

Rob Maxwell, of Butler, Alabama, the only identified Alabamian in this volume, has a tale of two Vietnam veterans in Mobile. The speaker, a retired Navy officer, is visiting Sanders, a high school football star who lost his legs from wounds suffered in the war. One white, one black, the two men are bonded by sports and war.

There are no bad stories in this volume, amazingly enough, but there are some problematical ones. "Burning Bright" by Pat Miller is a tale of psychotic child abuse. A little girl is kidnapped, tortured, and killed. It is violent, startling, disgusting, upsetting, and quite well done. It put me in mind of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, a literary novel, not pornography, full of such pain and cruelty that if it had been in my power, there was a moment when I would have had all copies burned, First Amendment or no First Amendment. I only raise the problem here; I do not supply the answer.

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