From these writers I learned how important it is to all of us that we encourage each other. It is not news that writing is a hard and solitairy road. A few words can give us the necessary courage to continue….Many have told me that the Pushcart Prize series is almost a religious obligation to me. And I would not disagree.Bill Henderson, Pushcart XLIV “Introduction”
Little did we know, back in January, how solitary and hard that road would become.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of COVID-19, but it was definitely not on my mind when I started this read in early January 2020. At some point it became something that was happening in China. Then Italy. I happen to have an e-friend in that region of Italy, and I felt very sorry for her as she described the lockdown procedures: no school, no work, no travel except for food or medicine, no gatherings, no weddings or funerals. Eventually it dawned on me that I would soon come to know those conditions, perhaps a little less stringent, but not much. And now 60,000 people in the US have died, including health care workers who weren’t provided proper personal protection equipment. But we flattened the curve. And now there are armed militias brandishing Confederate flags, Nazi swastikas, and assault rifles gathered outside Michigan’s legislature threatening lawmakers who want to continue the measures in the interests of preventing a resurge.
City Lights Bookstore, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose poetry serves as an epigraph in this edition of Pushcart) and declared a national landmark, nearly went bankrupt until a gofundme kept it going. AWP’s conference in early March, often a sales boost for small booksellers and a moment of publicity for new authors, was not cancelled, a decision everyone now regrets since panels were cancelled and it turned out to be a sad, sparsely attended affair. Authors are valiantly holding book launches on Zoom, in the hopes of enjoying some semblance of the triumphal event capping years of work that they’d been looking forward to.
My first loss of the pandemic was the closing of the local library. I would visit once or twice a week, get a copy of the NYT Sunday crossword, just sit and read in the Atrium. Then Portland shut down. The grocery store has stayed open (the initial toilet paper shortage has mostly abated though stocks are limited, and many food items are growing more scarce) and the busses are running, but it’s very different: we all wear masks, occupancies are reduced to assure social distancing is possible, plexiglass sheets protect cashiers. Between the masks, the partitions, and my inability to wear glasses and mask at the same time, I can barely see or hear. But I’m healthy, no one I know has died or been horribly sick, I don’t have to worry (yet) about losing my job, income, and/or health insurance, and that’s more than some can say.
It’s been a weird spring.
Reading, as I yammered on about a couple of years ago, is all about context, and as I read more into this volume, the current moment intruded more and more.
The upshot is: I greatly enjoyed this edition. Given how tepid I was about last year’s volume, that wasn’t a certainty, but by the seventh or eighth story, I felt like last year was an aberration and Pushcart was itself again. It’s possible that’s because I skipped the poetry (with one exception, included more for its source than the poem itself). I’d intended to do a few, the poems I could say something intelligent about, but it was so much less stressful to just turn the page and not spend a couple of hours worrying about syllables and symbols and consonance/dissonance and all that. So (I admit it) I wimped out. But I think the fiction was far stronger than last year, and the nonfiction, while overall less interesting to me, had a few standouts as well.
The fiction was so good, in fact, I have trouble narrowing down a list of favorites to a reasonable number. To list my favorites would be to leave out three or four stories that were only not-favorites because the favorites were so favorite.
One type of story I always enjoy are those that mystify me in a positive way, stories I don’t think I’ve got a handle on, but can’t stop thinking about, that intrigue me with their possibilities instead of leaving me in the dark. “The Important Transport” by Diane Williams, and “Flour” by Joy Williams, had moments that were crystal clear and moments that seemed to shift to another plane. These are quintessential Pushcart stories.
Early on, I thought “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” by Jason Brown would be my favorite story. I still think it is; I mean, Don Quixote, come on. But what about Ben Shattuck’s “The History of Sound” or Claire Luchette’s “New Bees”, Erin Singer’s “Bad Northern Women,” or “Pattycakes” by Claire Davis? And what about the coming of age tales – “Fat Swim” by Emma Copley Eisenberg, “The Entertainer” by Whitney Collins, Richard Bausch’s “In That Time” or Leslie Pietrzyk’s “Stay There” – that show how age comes all our lives? Or “Hao” by Ye Chun, or “General Unskilled” by Ryan Eric Dull, showing how personal the political can be?
I won’t say much here about the closing story, “Oasis,” except that, reading it in the context of COVID-19 where the debate is now about letting old people die to save the economy, it was the perfect closing story with the perfect closing line. I suspect it would’ve been perfect back in January, too, but would’ve been perfect in a different way. Though we’re focused right now, we have a whole stack of tragedies, horrors, and atrocities to forget, after all. When we take our masks off, will we be able to look at each other? At ourselves?
I had a couple of push-backs on the nonfiction side, which are always fun: Hal Crowther’s “Dante on Broadway” and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Jailbait”. I found “If You Find a Mouse on a GlueTrap” by Suzane Farrell Smith to be an outstanding example of creative nonfiction. “The Human Soup” by Maureen Stanton did a great job of combining what could have been dry (hmmm) facts with storytelling – but to read it now would be a very different experience than when I encountered it in the unawares of January.
There are other great stories here; these are just a few examples. Read it yourself, see what stands out to you. Not everything will grab you; presenting a variety of viewpoints and techniques is the hallmark of a prize anthology. But I suspect you’ll find a lot to enjoy, while you’re looking out the window, wondering if the sidewalks will ever bustle again.