The Pen / O. Henry
Prize Stories 2009

Laura Furman,

(Anchor Books)
There are twenty stories here. A few are drawn from the pages of The New Yorker, including ones by Nadine Gordimer, Ha Jin, and Paul Theroux.

Gordimer was in her prime years ago. With her early short stories and novels The Lying Days, A World of Strangers, Occasion for Loving, and The Late Bourgeois World, she showed herself to be brave and true, one of the few writers to challenge apartheid in her home-country, South Africa. In her eighth decade, she is still writing, but if "A Beneficiary" is any example, the dew is off the rose and the petals have fallen away.

And Theroux's contribution isn't a story at all, but twenty-two fragments, what he calls "Long Story Short." These bits and pieces average 250 words. In the end-notes to Prize Stories, Theroux says "Quite a number of Jorge Luis Borge's tales are short but powerful." He says he has over a hundred of these sitting on his desk, but comparing himself to Borges might be defined as overreaching.

Then we have Ha Jin. He's much beloved of the New York publishing world, but his novels The Crazed and Waiting didn't make much of an impression on this reviewer. But the story offered here, "The House behind a Weeping Cherry," does have a benign touch.

Warren works in a garment factory but he can't pay the rent for his apartment. His landlady offers him a discount if he acts as "chauffeur" for her three working ladies-of-the-night. He takes them on, falls for one of them --- Huong --- and off they go. Into the sunset. To Metuchen or Rahway.

The final story in this prize volume, Junot Díaz' "Wildwood," is probably the best. Teen-aged Lola, from the Dominican Republic, lives with her mother. When she stays out at night, the mother's "rage filled the house, like flat stale smoke."

    It got into everything, into our hair and our food, like the fallout they told us about in school that would one day drift down soft as snow.

A great story. We can only wonder why the editor chose to put it at the tail end of the collection.

O. Henry was not his real name. It was William Sydney Porter. He got nabbed and jailed for three years for taking money that wasn't his. Except for "Wildwood," Prize Stories is a bit of an embezzlement too.

--- Lolita Lark
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