The Antioch Review, as its website explains, has been publishing high-quality poetry and prose by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates (whose haunting 1966 “The Dying Child” appears in the “From Our Archives” section of this issue), Gordon Lish, Edith Pearlman, T. Coraghessan Boyle—the list is long and impressive—for more than seventy years. Over its venerable lifespan, it has seen changes in ideology, format, and focus, all a testament to its adaptability and continued emphasis on intelligence, currency, and “the best words in the best order.” Every year, TAR publishes an all-fiction issue (with a few poems), a celebration of the genre with more than twice as many entries as most issues contain. This year’s volume is a winner.
Take “The Way Out,” by Kent Nelson: Iris and her husband are finding the way out of the mountains after they’ve shot an elk in the snow, but Iris is also looking for a way out of a less-than-satisfying affair, which was a way out of an already even-less-than-satisfying marriage. Iris and Warren’s journey through the very cold dark, carrying their very heavy cargo, comprises the symbolic and literal narrative arc. Flashbacks and ruminations in italics show Iris’s backstory and her motives, the unfortunate neediness of the lover, certain unwanted events in that realm, then this hunting trip which, she is thinking, will give her a way out of the marriage. Nelson unpacks all this not exactly delicately, but with great skill; we don’t love anyone here, but we do want Iris to get what she wants, and it is almost certain she will. The stinging question becomes how.
Nan Cuba’s multi-layered story, “Taking Charge,” looks more simple than it is: a story of a grandfather’s calling to be a doctor, told by his granddaughter, Sarah. But no. Cuba is an investigative journalist, and though her narrator is not one of those, she puts together some anecdotes from her progenitor’s past that suggest an expanded version of his career choice, which she writes down and reads to her daughter (a doctor’s wife, like her mother and the three generations of mothers before her), who protests and disclaims it. But Sarah will not let her idea die. She reads it to her grandson, who appears in the opening scene next to Sarah’s father at a picnic table, bent over a newly-skinned squirrel, receiving an anatomy lesson. And the grandson has his own response. This is a story about generations believing and not wanting to believe, hypothesizing a truth and not wanting it to be false whether or not anyone else wants the same. All this in sixteen pages, with an ending to die (or fly) for.
It’s trendy, in contemporary fiction, to write irony and not-caring, and there’s plenty of that in some of the stories in this fiction issue. But it’s certainly finely-crafted. “Summer Conference Jack” by Peter LaSalle, a take-off on the myriad writers’ conferences that blossom all over the nation in the months between spring and fall semesters, has a jaded poet cultivating a gorgeous “dish” of a woman at one conference, only to decide that what he is—a jaded poet, a conference junkie—is sufficient, and he may not need her after all. The keynote speaker at the conference is
a polite, mousy woman with a dull black Prince Valiant haircut who had won a major award for a novel about a boutique organic-vegetable shop in Manhattan (man, what has happened to this world of ours, Jack thought, and this was a name national prize once won by dazzlingly intellectual Saul Bellow and also spookily metaphysical Joyce Carol Oates, he remembered, not to mention Hemingway right before he died, and now we’re talking about the trials, tribulations, and assorted epiphanies in seeking love and fulfillment for a protagonist who is a goddamn connoisseur of healthy carrots and avocadoes!) . . .
That’s only half the sentence, and there are others like this at well-paced intervals throughout the story, smart and funny and precisely indicative of the limits and aspirations of the titular character.
Similarly, the unreliable narrator in Nathan Oates’s “An Attempt to Set the Record Straight Concerning the Drowning” insists on his love for the woman whose drowning the title refers to:
What we are faced with is the death of a beautiful person, the person who’d brought me the only real, lasting happiness and kindness I’ve experienced, the person without whom, I often thought as I lay awake in bed beside her with the blue glow of the streetlights sipping around the edges of the blinds where they are buffeted softly by the wind, I could not survive, would not want to survive. But here I am. Alive.
By the last sentence of the story, however, all this is in doubt. What we care about by then is neither the narrator or his wife, but the rather horrible story itself, and the dramatic irony of what we know over against what everyone else thinks. Good reading (which requires such cursed hard writing) calls for awareness on many levels. These stories provide ample opportunity for that.
All the authors in this issue are much-published, much-awarded. Of the five poets, Jerome McGann’s clever excerpts from a collection of parodies of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll called Poems for Persons of Uncertain Age deserves particular mention. I envision these lilting rhyme-stories illustrated by Edward Gorey and held out to children—and then drawn back, swiftly, before little hands can actually grasp. As with all 20 pieces in this issue (plus editorials and reviews), a certain readerly sophistication is required. Devour and enjoy.