Confessions from American suburbia

Every year, the University of Georgia Press awards two Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction prizes to outstanding short story collections. The Press inaugurated the award in 1983 “to encourage gifted emerging writers by bringing their work to a national readership.” The winners receive a cash prize and also publication by University of Georgia Press, which announced the 2012 winners this week. It’s a previous winner, though, that’s had my attention.

In 2008, Andrew Porter won the award for The Theory of Light and Matter. His collection was mentioned to me during a recent discussion with a book club in an aside by a member. She told me her son, Brian Strause, had recommended she read Porter’s prize-winning book. (Brian Strause is the author of the widely praised novel Maybe a Miracle.) I read Porter’s short stories, and now I’m recommending the collection to you — some six degrees of separation going on here in the world of book recommendations.

A seductive quality of Porter’s 10 stories is the engaging first person voice. Its warmth and confessional tone feels like we’re listening to a good friend who wonders out loud to us about past family situations involving, in one story, the narrator’s distant father trying and failing to live up to a “genius” label attached to him early in life; and, in another, the narrator’s mother, whom he caught in an intimate moment with another woman while her husband is away.

Each story in the collection delves into ordinary suburban life and grabs us with believable and relatable emotions of desire, hope, guilt, yearning and confusion. Porter’s characters are good people – his compassion for them brings us closer to them, as does the way they happen to misjudge and disappoint each other, many because they fail to speak up when something is wrong.

Here’s a brief summary of three of the stories:

  • In “Azul,” a childless couple relates to the exchange student in their home as a friend. Their failure to discipline and set limits reflects their middle-aged regrets and leads to an accident.
  • In “River Dog,” the narrator remembers a high school party during which he believes his brother assaulted a classmate and to this day wonders about what happened. He begins, “It is easy now, after everything that has happened to my brother, to say I didn’t hate him. But I can still remember how it used to humiliate me when the rumors about him spread through my high school.”
  • In “Departure,” the sixteen-year-old narrator looks back to the summer “over ten years ago” when he and a friend gawked at Amish kids hanging out at a diner and casually dated the Amish girls with whom they could never get close.

My favorite is the title story for the way Porter brings a familiar theme to life and wrings out our hearts in the process. It is the only story narrated by a female voice, that of Heather, who falls in love with her college physics professor but leaves him to marry a boy she’s been dating, who graduates and becomes a doctor. Porter elegantly illustrates the situation of being in love versus making a better choice for marriage, and it brought to mind C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Che Fece … Il Gran Rifiuto” about the right ‘no’ that drags a person down all his life.

A word about short story collections: they don’t get near the consideration they deserve these days from publishers or readers. There used to be a time in the 20th century when this literary form was so popular and in-demand authors made a good living publishing them in magazines alone. The article “Publish or Perish: The Short Story” by Paul Vidich in the Millions states: “There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.”

Another article to consider about this short literary form, “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” in The Guardian brings to our attention masters of the short story through the ages. And a good reading list for short story collections can be found on the website of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This year’s winner is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter made the longlist of that award in 2009.