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Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson, with the Pushcart Prize editors, Pushcart Press, RRP£12.99/$19.95, 654 pages
Is this a golden age for readers? The amount of good writing accessible online easily surpasses what even the most devoted could have wished for a generation ago. But, as Bill Henderson writes in the introduction to Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses, this is also “the age of clutter censorship . . . What reader can sort through this cacophony?”
Thus, this 38th annual collection of Pushcart Prize-winning short stories, poetry and essays from America’s independent publishers and small literary magazines must be welcomed. The anthology, featuring about 70 works, also gives us a good opportunity to consider the state of contemporary writing across many of America’s non-mainstream publications.
There are a lot of well-known writers featured, such as Lorrie Moore, but I read it more for the names I hadn’t come across before. Highlights include “Lorry Raja”, Madhuri Vijay’s story about child miners in India, and Jack Livings’ “Donate!”, about a man in China who decides to give blood following an earthquake.
Still, it is the literary non-fiction that stands out, for instance Bill Cotter’s “The Gentleman’s Library: A Nowaday Redux”, an account of being set the impossible task of curating a library of “the most important works of literature of all time”; and Howard Norman’s “Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher”, in which the writer recovers from the shock of finding out about a horrific murder and suicide that occurred in his home while he and his family were away on holiday. Both authors’ writing styles are far from formulaic.
Great essayists are masters of opening sentences that pull you in with a precisely observed moment or epigram. This is certainly the case with the essays in this volume. Take the first lines of Philip Kelly’s “Painting the Summer Palace of the Queen”: “I invade people’s lives for a living. At dawn I climb ladders to their second-story windows and fiddle with their locks. I place flammable materials in their garages and wake their sleeping dogs. I meet flannel-robed housewives as they hurry their husbands out the door. / I’m a house painter.”
Or Eric Fair’s essay “Consequence”, about his attempts to move on with his life after working as an interrogator in Iraq, which begins: “I enter my name into a search engine. There are 3,700 results. The word torture appears in most of them . . . I check e-mail, thirty eight new messages. ‘Mr. Fair, I’m not at all sure why you have your panties in a twist. It seems clear that you were a willing participant, as a civilian contractor, in the interrogation process in Iraq.’”
As with any collection, there are items that disappoint. But for the most part Henderson and fellow editors have chosen well. Best of all is Davy Rothbart’s “Human Snowball”, an essay about his misadventures in romance, taken from his 2013 book My Heart Is an Idiot. The line between informal eloquence and self-conscious chumminess is thin, but he pulls it off.
Rothbart also possesses an unusual trait for a serious writer: he is extremely funny. His style of humour depends on barely believable situations. A long-haul bus journey to pursue a futile teenage crush ends with Rothbart toasting shots of whiskey to a centenarian he recently befriended and a vagabond gang of car thieves.
In our age of tweets and blog posts, it’s not uncommon to hear that the long-form essay is dead: Ars longa, vita brevis. But, actually, from this collection it appears to be in rude health.