Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
Coolest American Stories 2022
edited by Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey
Coolest Stories Press
January 2022, $25.95 317 pages, ISBN: 978-1-7375739-0-6
One of the coolest things about the thirteen stories that make up this collection and makes them legitimate contenders for the title is the sense of revelation that each embodies, whether it’s a poignant insight into love or suicide or your “otherness,” or even just the quotidian awareness of being hungry after watching a lion bite off your mob boss’s head, as in S.A. Cosby’s hilarious noir, “Pantera Rex.” Each of these stories has its moment, some more subtle than others, some more dire. (Look no further than the first story, Lori D. Johnson’s “Shepherd’s Hell,” if you’re looking for “dire.”)
Another cool thing about this collection as a whole is the variety of protagonists and narrators. Shepherd is the focus of a tale about a dysfunctional African-American family that features a crackhead, a pederast and a seemingly suicidal mother, sucking down cigarettes despite her COPD and, significantly, leaving the lit butts burning while she dozes. Frances Park’s “The Summer My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon” is narrated by the younger Korean-American sister of the oddly supportive but self-destructive title character. Marcy is the brainy wallflower to Cleopatra’s drunken flirt. Their sisterly relationship is affecting, compelling. In Megan Ritchie’s “Good Actors” a young man confused about his sexuality wonders about his feelings for his girlfriend, both trying to make it in Hollywood. There’s also Shuman, the clueless but sympathetic middle-class white guy at the center of Lee Martin’s “Happy Birthday, Honey Vanlandingham,” who indeed, for all his bumbling, turns out to be someone worth mourning. These are all characters we can identify with, disparate though they may be.
Unique plots are another cool aspect of the collection. Michael Hopkins’ “The Tallest Mountain in the World” begins: “Dr. Merton gave Shelby Aronowitz bad news. The pain in her knee was osteosarcoma. They would have to amputate the leg.” Turns out Shelby wants to keep the amputated leg, a sort of souvenir, which causes friction in the family, Shelby threatening to sue her mother for refusing her request, newspaper reporters catching wind of the story. D.Z. Stone’s “Spies” is a witty story about adultery that bizarrely involves a chance encounter between a restless woman and the guy who had a high school crush on her decades back. How will this end? (Do we really ever find out? Does it matter? “I’m gonna be fine,” Anna confides. “I’m good.”)
There’s also a cool, healthy dose of noir in the mix, John Jeffire’s “Boss” and Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s “Blue Martini” joining the already mentioned “Pantera Rex” and “Shepherd’s Hell.” You can’t beat noir for page-turning suspense and an almost voyeuristic thrill watching what happens.
But it’s David Ebenbach’s “All of This Water” that really stands out as the coolest story in the collection, for me. The story takes place two days after David Foster Wallace’s suicide in September, 2008. It’s another sibling story, like “The Summer My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon,” only this time it’s brothers. Narrated by the older brother, Aaron, who is in Washington DC to meet his younger brother Jon and Jon’s Finnish boyfriend Niklas, things are awkward from the start. Jon is a troubled person who has had some difficult years, psychologically, and Aaron tries to “protect” him from the knowledge of DFW’s suicide. This ultimately proves unnecessary – Jon already knows and it’s not the devastating news Aaron is afraid it will be – but years after this lunch date in DC, we learn, Jon takes his own life.
“Maybe I remember that day because it was a moment of shared perspective. My brother and I looked into one another’s eyes and knew that we were both thinking the same thing.” What David Foster Wallace had just done. But this isn’t where the story ends. Aaron asks Jon and Niklas if they feel like eating. Niklas nods, and “Jon smiled and breathed out and said, ‘Hell, yes.’” What a cool ending to a heartbreaking story, life-affirming in the midst of heartbreak.
The contributor’s bio section at the end of the volume includes an especially cool “story behind the story” feature, as each writer tells the genesis and inspiration for his or her story. Often it’s the familiar one about the story put into a desk drawer and forgotten for years before inspiration strikes. Mary Taugher’s story behind “The Fifth of July,” a story about America’s love of guns, their prevalence and danger, is especially moving. Her mother-in-law was shot and killed during a home invasion. Susan Tacent’s “Habitat,” about a woman who accidentally injures herself while gardening, is based on real life! “The gardening claw’s longest tine, curved past the others like a nasty middle finger, had gone through her flip-flop, pinning it to her foot,” Tacent writes about her protagonist, Margaret. Driving herself to urgent care, Tacent confesses, “I already sensed a story incubating.” Talk about inspiration!
Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey definitely have an eye for “cool.” These are delightful stories, some to make you laugh, some to make you cry, all to absorb your attention. Very cool. And the coolest thing about Coolest American Stories 2022? It’s the title, of course! (I’m looking at YOU, The Best Short Stories of 2XXX, Oxford Book of Short Stories, Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net….).
About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is). Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.