The best and the slightest

Skimming the cream from annual compendia

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As regularly recurring as winter's chill and generally as predictable as the delivery of tax forms, Houghton Mifflin rolls out its Best American series at the end of each year. Designed for Americans with vacuum-packed schedules and patchy attention spans, the allegedly boiled-down-to-an-essence collections do, despite their very reductionism, serve an ostensible purpose: getting capital-L literature to readers who don't have the time or money to read every issue of The New Yorker, Harper's, or the dozens of fine small literary journals.

The two original "best" collections in Houghton Mifflin's series--The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays--spring from the era before reading had "returned" as a national pastime marked by megastores, Amazon.com, and well-publicized authors' tours. (Stories has been around for 22 years, Essays 14.) Even though novel-length stories are back, there's obviously still plenty of room on the shelves for compendia of shorter forms. For that reason, the Best American series now includes collections of niche genres such as mysteries, science writing, and sportswriting.

Even among the publisher's two original offerings, the quality remains startlingly uneven from year to year. While much of this can be chalked up to the good year/bad year scenario--as with wines or baseball prospects--a lot of it has to do with the tendencies of the chosen editors. A new one is picked for each volume, thereby theoretically adding a new flavor and sensibility to the selections from annum to annum. Usually the theory works, but not always to the benefit of readers. For example, The Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by novelist Amy Tan, featured tales spun by a mostly female, ethnically diverse group of writers. But with the exception of notable stories by Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri, the pan-cultural approach rarely added up to necessary reading. Other high-profile editors, including Tobias Wolff and Garrison Keillor, similarly wore their biases like bad rugs during their stints (in 1994 and 1998, respectively).

The Best American Short Stories 2000 (with selections made by guest editor and Aging White Guy E.L. Doctorow) and The Best American Essays 2000 (featuring the favorites of novelist, MIT physicist, and Younger White Guy Alan Lightman) throw a wrench in the predictable-editor scenario, offering surprises in approach that cut both ways. Doctorow's admirable openness to the newness of much stateside fiction and his keen eye for quality make for essential short-story consumption. Unfortunately, Lightman's acceptance of bland essay forms and the mediocre thinking behind them belies his standing as an intellectually thorough novelist who likes to take a chance or two.

To his credit, canon-father Doctorow opts for cross-cultural craft, achieving the literary equivalent of good fusion cuisine by blending first-rate works by immigrant and first-generation Americans, African-Americans, and others often shunted to the fringes of our society. He adds some rightful mainstream mainstays (Michael Byers, Tim Gautreaux, Allan Gurganus, E. Annie Proulx), achieving an all-inclusive democracy only hinted at in Dubya's cabinet. Those expecting a stodgy collection redolent of the likes of John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth can forget it (although the late Raymond Carver makes a notable appearance from beyond the grave with the typically poignant "Call If You Need Me").

At its best, Doctorow's collection shows longstanding middle-class Americans not just what they look like to outsiders, but what they are: pampered consumer pets who have only the most superficial inkling of the turbulent lives around them. That might not have been Doctorow's overt agenda--at least 15 of the 21 stories stand up as fine examples of the form on craft alone--but the novelist (Ragtime, City of God) creates an intermittent document of the neophyte's American experience. The best of the best here certainly includes Aleksandar Hemon's "Blind Josef Pronek," a completely unromantic tale of a young Bosnian trying to make a life in Chicago:

Eventually, he gathered his energy and found Carwin and his buddies gathered around the TV, which was showing a porn movie. Pronek took a while to recognize a gaping vagina. But they weren't watching it; they were engaged in a game that involved throwing a hackysack at a revolving ceiling fan. After the porn movie had ended in a moment of collective ecstasy, Pronek took hold of the remote and found "Headline News." Paramilitary units had entered Bosnia from Serbia, it said, and had "committed atrocities." "What's with you people?," a guy in a Bears hat asked. "Why can't you just chill out?"

Equally gut-wrenching is Kiana Davenport's semiautobiographical tale of a twisted, violent Hawaiian family and the glue that somehow--again, utterly unromantically--holds it together. Gurganus' clever look at the extremes of the workaholic-fathers generation and ZZ Packer's racially loaded tale of a summer at camp likewise display a grasp of the nonsustaining myths (Calvinism, tribalism) that act poorly as surrogates for genuine reasons for social cohesion. Doctorow's selections bear out the contention that the short story is alive and well--and adds the kicker that it's rangy as hell to boot.

So, what's up with the story's nonfictional poor first cousin, the essay? Reading Lightman's 21 yawn-inducing treatises conjures up visions of an intellectually lazy world in which writers stake out territories more than they explore them. Hence, Lightman offers up back-to-the-woods Henry Thoreau emulator Wendell Berry extolling his independence--surprise!--in "In Distrust of Movements," while Edward Hoagland climbs out on the same old limb to once again come out in favor of nature ("The Earth's Eye").

But worse than the collection's predictability is the apparent addlebrainedness of some of its authors. Cynthia Ozick's loving paean to New York embarrasses with its overbearing generosity to its subject (even if it was penned for The New Yorker), while Peter Singer's "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" proves that even our most heralded philosophers can be guilty of simplemindedness. (His "solution"? Give more to charity. Wow.) Andrew Sullivan's barely readable screed against hate-crimes legislation, "What's So Bad About Hate?", is as daft as its title.

Michael Anft writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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