As someone who truly enjoys reading short stories, American Short Fiction literary magazine provides a real treat. I could not put it down, too eager to read each new short story. This Fall 2016 issue celebrates 25 years and, as a commemoration, the front and back covers are covered with the names of every author that has been included in its 63 issues.
Each story feels truly unique in this volume, starting with “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses” by Bret Anthony Johnston. This beautiful but melancholy short story explores the often imperfect memories of an elderly man near the end of his life. The stories circle around horses, which were Atlee’s passion, and he recalls a beautiful, terrifying memory of a river and wild horses that stuck with him for the rest of his life.
He only ever recounted the story to his wife and it is a memory he will keep forever, how “the herd’s thunderous run [ . . . ] reminded him of an infinite flag unfurling, a wave breaking toward the shore, a ribbon of red smoke unspooling and being pulled inexorably away.” The story tells snippets of Atlee’s life so beautifully, each snippet just “a passing moment, scattering and shapeless, a story that wasn’t a story at all [ . . . ] a memory without beginning or middle or end.” It presents in a beautiful, real way how someone with memory problems might recount their life, disguise their lost memories, and recreate memories to better suit their needs.
Another story in this volume that had me completely focused on every word was “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” by Danielle Evans. The name of the story was confusing to me—what could it be about? Even having read the story, I still am not sure how the title connects to the events within except that it harkens somewhat to the main character, Rena, a photojournalist who normally spends her time photographing difficult and controversial images around the globe. In this story, she is attending the wedding of her friend. The narration flows so effortlessly from one event to the next, spilling out how tumultuous and unexpected life can be for anyone, no matter how much that person is trying to control and organize their life.
As these two friends progress through the story, they learn more about each other, but at the same time, they learn to stop caring about all the small idiosyncrasies in life and simply exist in the moment. Throughout the story, Rena keeps revisiting a traumatic part of her life that she has not dealt with, but simply ran away from. Now, during this beautifully organized but poorly executed wedding weekend, she finally learns to face it and a common phrase that we have all heard takes on a deeper meaning: “Wish you were here.”
Not only does this issue commemorate 25 years of publication, it also contains the first and second place short stories for the annual American Short(er) Fiction Contest. The first place story by Erin Somers, titled “Canine,” explores a mom’s disjointed thoughts as she copes with an enormous decision: the decision to leave her husband. As her husband begs her to “Be reasonable” from the other side of the door, she tries to cook, clean, dress herself up, and care for the baby in a hazy fog. She represents how so many people would react when dealing with a stressful situation. She tries to be “normal” and “functional” even when everything is falling apart. I am sure most of us can relate to this mindset, desperately clinging to simple, normal actions in daily life to keep from thinking about much bigger and more traumatic issues at hand.
Another great story in this collection comes from Andrea Barrett, author of three short story collections and six novels. She won a 1996 National Book Award for Ship Fever and was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Just as I expected, her short story here, titled “Open House,” is masterfully written with complex characters and multiple storylines, delicately interwoven. It is set in the era directly before Prohibition is to take place when a normally wealthy family, the Durands, hosts their annual open house event in the week after Christmas. Everyone is struggling to decide what they will do once Prohibition starts and how they will cope with the changes, including the Durands who face possible ruin. At the same time, intimate secrets about the family come to light and the Durands struggle to keep themselves together, even as it seems the world is falling apart.
A recurring theme throughout this issue of American Short Story seems to be that life is a struggle and can be difficult or traumatic at times. However, with the strength of good friends, beloved family, and cherished memories, humans can push through the trials and find happiness, love, forgiveness, and resolution. It is a beautiful volume and I cannot wait to see their next issue.