Editor Stanley Elkin started it. He mentioned the "mortality of fiction" in his introduction to "Best American Short Stories." Now the topic is fair game for his reviewers.
Compiled from 1,500 short stories published in the United States and Canada during 1979, "Best Short Stories" contains 22 works by knowns and not-so-knowns. What is most memorable in the collection is its almost unrelenting consistency. The stories form variations on what is Mr. Elkin's, more than the author's, theme.
Elkins promises in his introduction, "We are dealing with solace,m the ideam of solace, art's and language's consolation prize." Later he continues, "Ther is solace in finality and a grace in resignation no matter what one is resigned to -- death, helpnessness, the end of chance, resignation itself. But life's tallest order is to keep the feelings up, to make two dollars worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can't do that. So fiction does. And there, right there is the real -- I want to say 'only' -- morality of fiction. Not much, is it? It's all there is."
Well, it is nearly all there is in this collection, anyway. By his own admission he has selected tales of the rumpled, the disheveled, the "soiled of heart." The stories study the aging, dying, betrayed, and betraying. If the editor had stuck to his introduction's first argument -- all I'm doing is exercising my taste --as the best of a year's worth of short fiction, the stories fall short of the morality of fiction.
In too many of the tales, courage, transcendence, hope are presented as white lies we tell ourselves to make life bearable. Thus the morality of this fiction becomes art's dutiful exposure of these "lies." The stories gather in almost one voice around the unfaithful husband in Curt Johnson's "Lemon Tree." He told his unfaitful wife and her current lover, "'go on . . . Enjoy good company,' thinking that if in this world the way was you couldn't find any one to be true to you, or anyone to be true to, then nothing mattered, not even hurting children."
But something does matter. And searching for that is what moral fiction is about. Moral fiction has a vision of what matters and pressess life to that vision. Moral fiction pushes through the crowd of resignation to get close to what matters; it stands by humantity for the last round to prove what matters.
In these stories the vision of life has no push. Life is a late night card game. We have been dealt our last hand -- no cards allowed. The best we can do is bluff. But we are too tired to bluff. So this fiction, this kibitzer on life, says, "It's okay; just fold gracefully." Here's sour solace.
Yet a few of the stories give us more than bluffing of folding gracefully. Sheer rage at war rumbles and explodes from the dark humor of "The First Clean Fact" by Larry Heineman. A few bits of faithfulness -- useful in rebuilding -- still remain after the marital marital games in John Updike's "Gesturing." Careful and complex, Peter Taylor's "The Old Forest" pokes beneath Southern social masks, finding conscience in high and low places. Robert Henderson's "Into the Wind" offers a delicate metaphor for the moral dilemma: To push into the wind of drift -- that is the question.
In the end "The Best American Short Stories 1980" is for these whose taste runs with Mr. Elkins's. Because the stories are strong, admirable constructions of the art of fiction, they stand up. But the characters -- their arguments -- seem all too willing to take the easy way out.