The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story
edited by John Freeman (2021)
Penguin Press (2021)
Happy Short Story Month! That’s right, May is the time to focus energy on short stories! I worry that a large number of readers turn their nose up at short stories or, if I’m being less judgmental, neglect short stories. But, of course, they can be supreme works of art.
This week, just in time for the big short story party, Penguin Press published The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, selected and with an introduction by John Freeman, whose resume certainly qualifies him. He knows the work of many of these authors because, in his role as editor at Granta, he has not just read but has edited their work.
Freeman has selected thirty-seven short stories, arranged chronologically from 1972 to 2019. It’s a great selection that provides some great stories but also demonstrates how diverse the modern American short story is. Things are not perfect in the publishing world, but I doubt we’d be able to find such a selection from work published from the 1920s through the 1960s.
The first story was an introduction for me. I had never read Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson”; indeed, I had not read anything by Toni Cade Bambara! Here is how that story begins:
Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup. And quite naturally we laughed at her, laughed the way we did at the junk man who went about his business like he was some big-time president and his sorry-ass horse his secretary. And we kinda hated her too, hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask. Miss Moore was her name. The only woman on the block with no first name.
Honestly, I feel we could go through this book and just look at the first few lines and most people would just keep reading. The next story, for example, is Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father,” also from 1972:
My father is eighty-six years old and in bed. His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs any more. It still floods his head with brainy light. But it won’t let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house. Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but to a potassium shortage. Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.
I’ve already posted my thoughts on the next piece, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” from 1973. It’s only with the fourth story that we get an author I would fully expect to see in this collection: Raymond Carver. But we get a story I had not read before: 1973’s “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes.” We round out the 70s with two very short stories, Alice Walker’s “The Flowers” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”
Rather than continue going through each decade this way, I’ll post the Table of Contents below. But I do want to make sure to emphasize how much I’ve enjoyed going through this selection. I’ve been thrilled by each story in some way, and each is a great example of how to write a wonderful story. Even the stories I’d already read shifted slightly for me. It’s not that I thought they were better, necessarily, but seeing them lined up together in this context was a special experience.