Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999

edited by Sherman Alexie

Published by Scribner

364 pages, 1999

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A Literary Smorgasbord

Reviewed by Holly Kulak


It's a personal quirk, but I often use the number and variety of food stains on the pages of a book I have just read as a measure for how much I enjoyed it; when I'm engrossed in fiction, snacking while reading is a divine ritual. After finishing Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, I thumbed through the pages and discovered Popsicle stains, Cheesie thumb imprints, flakes of melted chocolate and crumbs of a honey flavored granola bar. Suffice it to say, this compilation of short stories is a literary smorgasbord, each piece flavored with unique ingredients and the welcome new voices of several writers.

Guest edited annually (Carol Shields did the honors in 1998), the series is selected from student submissions in graduate writing programs across Canada and the United States. This year's editor, Sherman Alexie (himself an esteemed writer: check out his unforgettable story "The Toughest Indian in the World," showcased in The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue) clearly knows the recipe for literary success, giving us exquisitely crafted, eclectic stories teeming with rare spontaneity, rich subtext, and unforgettable moments.

Opening the collection is Adam Marshall Johnson's "The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite," which uses the second-person narrative to evoke the repressed emotions of 19-year-old Ben, who drives a charter bus that takes women in a cancer support group out for a weekly night on the town. Ben's mother started the group before she died, and now her son seeks escape and comfort from the "survivors," women who, despite their catheters, mastectomy scars and tendencies to vomit, still embody a very real human sensuality. When Ben delivers the women to the Cove, a rather seedy bar, he watches them cross the parking lot "...with a motion only cancer survivors can muster, a sexy, patient gait that comes with the knowledge bosses can't fire dying women, that cops won't cart them off, that bartenders don't tell bald women they've had too much."

Ben's most engaging interaction is with Mrs. Cassini, the flirting "auntie" with cancer who is determined to fulfill the request of Ben's mother by keeping things interesting for him. In this instance, Mrs. Cassini deluges Ben with tequila shooters and regales everyone with her mordant wit, proposing a toast "To cancer... A growth industry." Ben's intimate encounter with a young woman in the advanced stages of cancer taps into the means by which we seek comfort in the aftermath of loss.

Speaking of intimate encounters, writer Dika Lam flirts with the dangers of passion and retribution in "Judas Kiss," about an affluent woman who bites off (and swallows!) the tongue of her married lover:

Her jaws were the strongest vise in the world now, the blood too calm as the tip of his tongue tore off, as she savored the fragment, a treasure under the teeth... It quivered a quick passage down her throat -- a flapping, severed triangle that tasted of ham.

Needless to say, the story contains some graphic, but deliciously satisfying writing, integrating the geography of the tongue as a metaphor for bittersweet revenge. Soon enough we learn about the woman's lonely history: "The touch of strangers, especially, had always seemed the most familiar." The story gets particularly interesting when the swallowed tongue seems to develop a will of its own and begins controlling the woman's food and beverage preferences; where once she favored a white wine spritzer, she now desires a martini. Emotional cravings mark a central conflict in this story, cleverly signaling the ironies borne from our desire to fill voids through various acts of consumption.

First line deliveries in this collection are particularly juicy. Lani Wolf's story, "Helium Balloon" begins with a woman confessing, "Jack ripped all my clothes off the hangers and strewed them across the lawn. Then he turned on the sprinklers. Of course, he was high again. It was all because he was high..." Then there's this refreshing zinger from Peter Muñoz's "Latinnovator": "Delia first began to suspect a cosmic herpes conspiracy at the premiere of Cesar Chavez: Su Manera." What follows is the story of a woman who, before contracting herpes from her unfaithful husband, was "unremarkable and happy," collecting tacky souvenirs and bearing "a strong resemblance to Natalie Wood in West Side Story..." Now she is a dynamic employee at the Cel-Pro Corporation, plagued by the aurora borealis that relentlessly fills her mind with new ideas: "In the dark of her bedroom, alliterative themes for the United Way campaign had circled her head like fat houseflies."

Disturbed by this pattern of "spitting out ideas like watermelon seeds" Delia joins a support group and becomes the black sheep of the herpes family when she complains of her accomplishments since getting the virus. Her attitude is poorly received by her support group cohorts, who resent her reluctance to embrace the mantra "herpes is what you make it." Delia's neuroses are made worse when receives a congratulatory letter hailing her as a "Latinnovator." This story is an insightful, often hilarious look into the foibles that pervade the desire to achieve societal distinction.

A common theme in this collection centers around identity and cultural displacement, as examined through interracial relationships. In Bich Minh Nguyen's story, "Imminence," an American-raised Vietnamese woman visits the country of her birth with her American boyfriend the summer before they are to be separated by his departure for grad school. The woman is particularly interesting because of her complexity; she seems to have little interest in embracing her heritage (while visiting her aunts, she knows that staying in a hotel with her boyfriend challenges traditional practices of hospitality, but justifies the behavior by saying, "we are young and American and with Andrew I can get away with not knowing") yet she is silently resentful of Andrew's whimsical vernacular, including his reference to her as "darling" and the time "he sang I've got yellow fever, she's got white-boy fever, we're in love..." Her ambiguous sentiments continue to surface, and seem to coincide with her fear of losing Andrew. This is a lovely, layered story, poignantly relaying a wilting relationship and the circumstances that influence who we are.

In "Deepak Misra's Secretary," by Samrat Upadhyay, a businessman in Katmandu begins an affair with his homely but efficient secretary, Bandana-ji, whose "pink-purplish" skin disfigurement looks "like a pregnant woman whose protruding belly pointed toward [her] nose." What the two share in common is their reliance on work to cope with loneliness. Deepak's American wife, an artist named Jill, left him two years ago, but complicates matters by returning to Katmandu. Bandana-ji's resentment towards Deepak's preoccupation with his estranged wife is revealed by her stoic behavior and curt remarks. "She's not that good," Bandana-ji tells Deepak while observing Jill's paintings. There's some nice symbolism in this story; in one scene Deepak buys a lovely new sari for Bandana-ji, after encountering her bartering for it with the shopkeeper (Jill also wears saris and is a big fan of Indian classical music). Bandana-ji does not protest Deepak's gesture and soon they are having sex. Bandana-ji's lovely singing voice gives their encounters a tender, soothing quality. Deepak, however, is unable to give up his futile pursuit of Jill, whose self-absorption he begins to acknowledge a little too late.

In a unique story by Laura E. Miller, "Lowell's Class," a young man named Paul struggles with his homosexuality during his early writing years. His angst is compounded by his participation in a poetry workshop at Boston University, taught by the famous writer Robert Lowell: "Lowell's friends called him Cal, short for Caliban from The Tempest. Others said it was short for Caligula. To Paul he remained simply Lowell. A monument." The story blends fictional circumstances with non-fictional characters; Paul's classmates include Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, both of whom are aptly portrayed: "Anne was a wild driver, swinging wide turns into narrow streets, passing everyone, leaning heavily into the horn. "Jesus!" Sylvia laughed. Her laugh, deep and ferocious, surprised Paul."

Paul suffers from the common writer's travail of trying to compose something profound while in actuality producing lackluster work. The underlying problem seems to stem from a question Anne Sexton frequently puts to him: "Where are you in this piece?" Paul's timidity is not helped by Lowell's proclivity for telling jokes about "queers." This story is thought-provoking and interesting, debunking myths about the peculiar romanticism surrounding genius, madness and self-destruction.

Of course, the collection wouldn't authentically represent the North American experience if some of the stories didn't comment on our culture's contemporary malaise, which manifests itself in crumbling marriages, desperate behavior, dysfunction, infidelity and a preoccupation with the woes of our neighbors. Julia Tonkovich offers an intelligent story, "Seducing Mrs. Roosevelt," in which a 30-year-old woman makes a logical argument for her impending infidelity, citing her research into the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, who transcended a gilded existence as the wife of a philandering, health-challenged president: "It's been through Eleanor that I've learned a well-formed argument can be as potent an incitement to the Act of Love as fingers curling under the hem of a skirt."

Curiously, the woman's real heroin is the film character Rizzo, "who [taught] Sandra Dee to be a real woman. To smoke, to wear a leather jacket and hot pants.... To be the one who shouts from the Ferris wheel the mystical phrase, 'I'm not knocked up!'"

The stakes are raised when we learn that this woman's husband is likely engaged in his own transgressions and that she is experiencing a "cell rebellion" as a result of a sexual encounter that cannot be traced to a specific source: "It may have come from Matt and his Datsun, it may have come from my husband working Saturdays." A major strength of this story is its frank exposition of our less-than-virtuous human instincts.

In another story, "Little George," Clark E. Knowles gives a haunting account of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl named Sissy. The setting is a small town where Sissy's parents were part of the neighborhood watch. The narrator, a neighbor who lost his brother in the Vietnam war, identifies with Sissy's brother, George, who becomes a media darling in his silent suffering: "Even the reporters call him 'little.' Little George Young. He is the focal point now. Sissy is just missing."

The repugnant yet seductive quality of the media and our shameless fascination with the tragedies of others make up much of the story's rich subtext. The story conveys the almost surreal "narrative" of contemporary news programs, which make incisive cuts from grotesque (and perversely compelling) stories, to information about traffic over Thanksgiving weekend, inserting a hair-perfect, dimple-cheeked anchorwoman in between. The story expresses the artificial nature of media which, despite its ardent efforts with zoom-ins and close-ups, cannot truly penetrate the essence of human suffering.

There are several more creative morsels in this book, all of which suggest that these emerging writers will not be relegated to a flavor of the month status. This is a collection loaded with individuality and chutzpah, a veritable feast of well-crafted stories that resonate and should be savored by literary dilettantes everywhere. Go ahead: indulge. | August 1999


HOLLY KULAK studied journalism at Ryerson though she ended up with a degree in liberal arts. Currently living and writing in Victoria, British Columbia, Kulak has spent time in Alaska, Alberta, and Florida where she skulked around Orlando and Key West, in search of both Hemingway's and Kerouac's ghosts (to no avail).