As I wrote in the first essay about this book, the early entries disappointed me. There are some great writers, but the selected stories are not among their best. They read like the stories that you have to read in school because they are assigned, not because you want to read them, and afterwards, as you are older and begin to appreciate good writing, you wonder what the educators were thinking in assigning these stories instead of some of the many truly exciting ones you discovered on your own since then.
In the midst of the decade 1950 to 1960, though, this book begins to blossom, starting with the elegant “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. It’s a character study, but it’s about music, and there’s music in the prose. The story builds from a fairly standard, although grittier than usual, beginning to its stunning climax describing a jazz session in a night club, described in beautiful, melodic prose. It reminded me of the end of the movie “Whiplash.” The music is the message; there is nothing more to be said. This is what I had been looking for and expected from the beginning when I started reading this book. From a volume that proclaims it includes the best stories from the past one hundred years, you don’t expect any mediocrity, let alone poor entries. Yet this story was the first that exploded with greatness.
Next is “The Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth. This is a slight, comedic entry, but it uses its humor to touch on some very sensitive subject matter. Roth is a master of prose, and this is a good story. My favorite of his works, though, is still his excellent novel “American Pastoral.”
“Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor is a well-written story, but it’s not one of her best. One of the problems with it for me is a problem that I have with a lot of her stories: they are unpleasant. Granted, the unpleasantness of human experience is a core ingredient of short story material, but the way O’Connor often presents it is in the context of ordinary people that you expect something good to happen to, and then bam! Something devastates them and that’s the end of the story. But at least it’s a nicely told, comprehensible story, unlike some in the early parts of this book.
“Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike, is a brilliant and brilliantly written story. I remember having to read it – it must have been in one of my high school classes – and not understanding it at all. Although it is about a child, or rather a young teen, it is not for children and should not be taught in schools. It’s ostensibly about a boy who has a crisis of faith and begins to question his religious upbringing, yet his parents, his teachers, and his religious instructors can offer him no consolation or reasonable explanation that helps him with what he is going through. There’s no way I would have been able to relate to the themes in this story when I was young. Only now, when I am over sixty years old, can I appreciate it for what it is: a short story masterpiece.
When I first started reading “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” by Raymond Carver, I wondered when he would get to the point and how an editor kept reading long enough to get to the strength of the story. It is a strong story, but it starts slowly, with an important but lengthy info-dump of background. It is a story of infidelity, guilt, and the need for absolution and forgiveness, but it doesn’t offer simple solutions. Instead, it addresses the ambiguity and shock that follows revelations of betrayal between couples, and how hard it is to regain stability after an emotional upheaval that shatters a complacent, unrealistic seemingly idyllic marriage. Once it gets going, it’s an excellent story.
“By the River” by Joyce Carol Oates is a very well written character study, and it held me absorbed right up to its violent climax. The violence, however, I couldn’t help but consider gratuitous. I didn’t see the story going in that direction, and I don’t think there was sufficient buildup for the plot to go that way. Ultimately, it’s Oates’s call, but had I been writing the story I would have ended it differently. Or perhaps not. Who knows? Sometimes when I am writing, the story takes over, and unplanned things happen to the characters. It happened to me when I was writing the story “Opting Out.” I loved and identified with the main character, and when I wrote the tragic climax, I wept for him. I didn’t want it to end like that. I had emotionally invested so much in him. I wanted him to find his way out, to find his way home.