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Award-Winning Tales For Short Trips

By Jim BencivengaJim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. / April 27, 1990



PRIZE STORIES 1990: THE O.HENRY AWARDS edited and with an introduction, by William Abrahams, New York: Doubleday, 431 pp., $19.95 THIS is not a book to take on a transcontinental flight. Somewhere over Kansas your imagination will don a parachute. Too much occurs too quickly in each of the short stories in this collection. The genre makes a reader toe the mark, get set, go - a literary wind sprint, albeit with multiple finish lines. But for short trips, mental as well as physical, this volume is ideal.

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Do you commute by train? ``The Grands'' will transform the clicking sounds of wheel and rail into collective reverie. A Southern family, now scattered about the continent looks for roots in memories of grandparents and their turn-of-the-century homestead in Tennessee. The memories, seemingly random and ghostlike, become the taproot connecting relatives.

Did the baby just drop off for a nap? Can you muffle laughter so as not to wake her? Revisit rock-and-roll in the northeast Bronx with a 1950s ``going steady'' couple in ``Vito Loves Geraldine.''

My favorite in this collection is ``Elizabeth Baird,'' who was ``born with a very slight cerebral lesion'' that ``produced brief pauses in her speech and the movements of her body, so that she seemed always to be hesitating, fawnlike, before the disclosure of her thought or will.... Her ways were lovely, womanly and modest, and she was tiny as an elf.'' Sixteen lyrical pages span one woman's life in a small Southern town, Ionia, S.C., before and after World War II.

To ``see'' the world, Baird completes army nursing school after high school. Assigned to Pearl Harbor she is transferred to the Philippines prior to the outbreak of war, is captured, and spends four hard years in a Japanese POW camp for women. Throughout her prison ordeal, currents of isolation caused by her handicap are profoundly stirred. Ironically, to her Japanese captors, Baird's hesitations make her the model prisoner. The resolution, an old theme, ``you can't go home,'' is dramatically reenforced when the alien culture and her physical handicap bring out a new identity.

Surprisingly, the first and second prize-winning stories are the longest in the collection. Top honors are for ``The Eleventh Edition,'' by Leo E. Litwak, with the runner-up ``Lumumba Lives,'' by Peter Matthiessen.

Litwak offers a rare treat. His protagonist, a young college student, credibly presents conflicting values among generations, the sexes, classes, and nationalities as they materialize and evaporate in a late 1940s Detroit rooming house. He finds himself bracketed between his next-room neighbor, a senile old man who ran a seed-catalog business and is now helpless as a child after the death of his wife of 53 years, and a brilliant, mesmerizing professor of philosophy at the university he attends. The old man's edition of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, ``the best,'' triggers a battle between head and heart and crystallizes a great tension in the young man's life. He ponders whether to pursue knowledge that improves the lot of humanity, including himself, or knowledge for its own sake.

In ``Lumumba Lives,'' noted author Peter Matthiessen merges the memory of terror and murder in Africa with the problem of polluted waters and the banks of the Hudson River just above New York City. The protagonist buys, with cash, part of his ancestral home on the Hudson. It had been sold while he spent the better part of his life in the US State Department in Africa.

What he can't purchase are the emotions of the heart it represents and which he has lost - decency and compassion. Indeed, his emotions now mirror what he finds as he walks along the river: ``In his own lifetime - is this really true? - the river has changed from blue to a dead gray brown, so thickened with inorganic silt that a boy would not see his own feet in the shallows.''

The 20 short stories in this collection invite literary dashes, not one long sustained read. The short story asserts compression. Plot, style, voice, character march to the drum of the story's ending and to no other. The finale must surprise, shock, depress, or puzzle. In able hands, and each author here is able, each ending also changes the beginning, so that we re-read to ``discover qualities and meanings that were not apparent immediately: in short, the rewards of art,'' writes series editor William Abrahams in the introduction.

The 70th in the O. Henry Memorial Award series - may it continue to 70 times seven!