The Best Small Fictions, 2016

edited by Stuart Dybek and Tara L. Masih

reviewed by Lisa Mullenneaux

“The shorter the story, the greater the challenge,” is a truism, at least among writers honest enough to admit it. In this collection of fiction shorter than 1,000 words, there’s no time to develop characters or fix a sagging plot line. The writer must hook the reader right away with a line like “Amelia Earhart just wanted to go home.” Of course she did. Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “A Thing Built to Fly Is Not a Promise” uses the recent theory that the famed aviatrix died a castaway to imagine her sharing a Pacific island with Japanese soldiers who hunt mermaids.

Daugherty’s mix of the real and imagined is typical of these forty-five “small fictions.” As editor Stuart Dybek notes, it’s an “anthology where writers locate their work along a continuum of infinite gradations that spans the poles of fiction and poetry, and of the narrative and lyric.” David Naimon’s “Past a Roar Completed” is breathtakingly lyrical in its brevity. A boatman (rich in mythic overtones) takes his party “that other way,” into the river’s gushing excess of sight and sound, an excess that both completes and starts a journey. Who are these travelers? We don’t know, and that strangeness defines “the bearded man” who haunts Rosie Forrest’s “Bless This Home,” James Kennedy’s unnamed “world’s worst clown,” and Eliel Lucero’s “crazy black man” forecasting the apocalypse to riders on the F train.

R.O. Kwon gives us a female narrator in “Hey” who builds financial models for Chinese practitioners “bloated with the confidence of the well paid.” Everything in her Beijing is outsized—her pace, her apartment, her diet, its traffic accidents. She careens from five-car pileups to food stalls, desperate for human contact, first following—and then chasing—a girl in a city that seems ready to swallow them both.

Dianca London Potts gives us another memorable narrator, an African-American girl watching her mother die in “Mama’s Comb.” She sees “those hands that used to hold me, that stitched me dresses out of nothing and tied ribbons around my braids, they are cold and stiff.” She makes a decision to hide her Mama’s precious things because her mother has vowed to come back and get them: “She will rise and come back, come back looking for me.”

These narrators spill all kinds of family secrets, especially the younger ones. In Tina Barry’s “Going South,” a daughter recreates with diary entries her family’s last trip to Miami “before Dad switched families.” Subtly, we experience the sadness that has invaded their lives—the sister’s insomnia, the mother’s restless feet and short love line. It ends with an image that hints at a terminus beyond the family’s return to New Jersey: “My sister threw a deck of cards out the car window. We watched them spiral tightly together down the highway, then blink out like dead stars as the wind drew them apart.”

Family rituals dominate these pages, such as the Easter egg hunt being prepared by parents whose son has recently committed suicide. Their twins “had been the ones to find him in the yard, a blue and silent wind chime.” That stunning and unforgettable image is matched in Jessica Plante’s “Natural Disaster” by a mother’s weeping body that rots the house and threatens to capsize her family. As the water from the mother’s body rises, the family bails to survive; mother disappears. A Venus flytrap narrates a family’s miseries with the arrogance of the well-fed in Janey Skinner’s “Carnivores,” which plays with the notion of a mother devouring her children. Surely this story gets the prize for most unusual point of view.

In “Healing Time,” a family whose members don’t speak to each other gathers at the hospital where their mother lies dying. Because she refuses to see her sons, the family holds its vigil in silence, a silence compounded by grief. Grief is also the theme of Courtney Sender’s “The Solidarity of Fat Girls,” about a brother cared for by his three older sisters. In this remarkable exploration of fat as an emotional buffer against the world’s cruelty, the brother runs away the night before his wedding. His sisters search all night but never find him, “sitting just above them in the hollow of a tree, neck thrown back, arms stretched up, reaching for the belly of the moon.”

The best of these fictional vignettes are like a splash of ice water in the face. Wake up, they shout, your life is unspooling. They create their emotional effects with a quick windup and a powerful release, often a final, lingering image.

Published on December 27, 2016