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The Best American Short Stories 2019

Anthony Doerr


  * * *

  Title Page






  KATHLEEN ALCOTT. Natural Light

  WENDELL BERRY. The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935–1978)

  JAMEL BRINKLEY. No More Than a Bubble





  NICOLE KRAUSS. Seeing Ershadi

  URSULA K. LE GUIN. Pity and Shame

  MANUEL MUÑOZ. Anyone Can Do It


  MARIA REVA. Letter of Apology

  KAREN RUSSELL. Black Corfu


  ALEXIS SCHAITKIN. Natural Disasters

  JIM SHEPARD. Our Day of Grace

  MONA SIMPSON. Wrong Object

  JENN ALANDY TRAHAN. They Told Us Not to Say This

  WEIKE WANG. Omakase

  Contributors’ Notes

  Other Distinguished Stories of 2018

  American and Canadian Magazines Publishing Short Stories

  Read More from the Best American Series

  About the Editors

  Connect with HMH

  Copyright © 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

  Introduction copyright © 2019 by Anthony Doerr

  All Rights Reserved

  The Best American Series® and The Best American Short Stories® are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

  No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10016.

  ISSN 0067-6233 (print)

  ISSN 2573-4784 (ebook)

  ISBN 978-1-328-46582-5 (hardcover)

  ISBN 978-1-328-48424-6 (paperback)

  ISBN 978-1-328-46712-6 (ebook)

  ISBN 978-0-358-17210-9 (audio)

  Jacket design by Christopher Moisan

  Doerr photograph © Ulf Andersen


  “The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. First published in Guernica, April 2, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Reprinted from Friday Black by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

  “Natural Light” by Kathleen Alcott. First published in Zoetrope: All-Story, vol. 22, no. 1. Copyright © 2018 by Kathleen Alcott. Reprinted by permission of Kathleen Alcott.

  “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935–1978)” by Wendell Berry. First published in Threepenny Review, 155. Copyright © 2018 by Wendell Berry. Reprinted by permission of Threepenny Review and Wendell Berry.

  “No More Than a Bubble” from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. First published in LitMag no. 2. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

  “The Third Tower” by Deborah Eisenberg. First published in Ploughshares, vol. 44,no. 1. From Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg. Copyright © 2018 by Deborah Eisenberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

  “Hellion” by Julia Elliott. First published in The Georgia Review, 72.2. Copyright © 2018 by Julia Elliott. Reprinted by permission of Denise Shannon Literary Agency, Inc.

  “Bronze” by Jeffrey Eugenides. First published in The New Yorker, February 5, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Eugenides. Reprinted by permission of Jeffrey Eugenides.

  “Protozoa” by Ella Martinsen Gorham. First published in New England Review, vol. 39, no. 4. Copyright © 2018 by Ella Martinsen Gorham. Reprinted by permission of Ella Martinsen Gorham.

  “Seeing Ershadi” by Nicole Krauss. First published in The New Yorker, March 5, 2018. From a short-story collection by Nicole Krauss to be published by HarperCollins in 2020. Copyright © 2018, 2020 by Nicole Krauss. By permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

  “Pity and Shame” by Ursula K. Le Guin. First published in Tin House, vol. 19, no. 4. Copyright © 2018 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Reprinted by permission of Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust.

  “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Muñoz. First published in Zyzzyva, no. 113. Copyright © 2018 by Manuel Muñoz. Reprinted by permission of Stuart Bernstein Representation for Artists. All rights reserved.

  “The Plan” by Sigrid Nunez. First published in LitMag, Issue 2. Copyright © 2018 by Sigrid Nunez. Reprinted by permission of Sigrid Nunez.

  “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva. First published in Granta, 145. Copyright © 2018 by Maria Reva. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Black Corfu,” copyright © 2019 by Karen Russell. Originally appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, vol. 22, no. 2; from Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

  “Audition” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. First published in The New Yorker, September 10, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. Reprinted by permission of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh c/o The Zoë Pagnamenta Agency.

  “Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin. First published in Ecotone, no. 24. Copyright © 2018 by Alexis Schaitkin. Reprinted by permission of Alexis Schaitkin.

  “Our Day of Grace” by Jim Shepard. First published in Zoetrope: All-Story, vol. 22, no. 1. Copyright © 2018 by Jim Shepard. Reprinted by permission of Jim Shepard.

  “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson. First published in Harper’s, November 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Mona Simpson. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “They Told Us Not to Say This” by Jenn Alandy Trahan. First published in Harper’s, September 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Jenn Alandy Trahan. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Omakase” by Weike Wang. First published in The New Yorker, June 18, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Weike Wang. Reprinted by permission of Weike Wang.


  My kids, twelve-year-old twins, both love books. At least they do for now. I say this not with immodesty but awe. They also love YouTube, as well as my phone (we are holding out as long as possible before getting them their own phones), certain movies that are streaming, and TV shows and video games. But they prefer their fiction and other long-form reading between covers and on pages made of paper. The fact that they choose to read anything long-form that is not required for school gives me hope. According to a Pew Research poll, in 2000, 48 percent of Americans did not use the internet; in 2018, only 11 percent were nonusers. This is my thirteenth foreword to The Best American Short Stories, and I wonder if there has ever been a more change-filled thirteen years in the way that we spend our day-to-day lives. Our phones can alert us to upcoming traffic, accidents, and even roadkill. Amazon Alexa can order
your refrigerator to turn on its icemaker. I don’t need to recount all of the methods by which we now stay in touch, fall in love, champion causes, shame others. And read.

  Early on in his reading for this book, guest editor Anthony Doerr described to me his challenge in reorienting to each new short story sent to him—120 distinct voices, plots, sets of characters—and frankly, I was relieved to hear that I was not alone. I confess that in the past few years, I have found my own attention span fractured. We are now, many of us, moving so quickly from task to task, from texting to life to work to social media, that it has grown a little difficult to engage in something that requires our minds to slow down for an extended period of time.

  In my house, we do impose screen limits and constantly urge our children to be more in the world, to have physical experiences, but also to get comfortable with being bored. It’s OK to just sit still and be blank, I tell my kids. Look out the window sometimes. Think, imagine, let your minds wander—and see where your mind lands. Of course, moments of stillness and blankness have become rarer for most of us. I too am not all that comfortable with boredom anymore. And so I find my children’s engagement with books these days almost miraculous. I will not lie: given the choice between a book and a computer, they will usually choose a computer. But I have seen them fall into certain books—and it does look like they have in fact landed somewhere they want to be. During a quiet afternoon or before bed, I have watched them turn pages, oblivious to me and the dog and everything else, and I am reminded of what a story can do. A good narrative can slow a mind that’s moving too quickly. A great story is its own kind of meditation, and at the risk of sounding even more woo-woo, its own kind of out-of-body experience. A ceding of one’s heartbeat and focus to another place and time. What a gift this is, especially now.

  I truly enjoyed working with Anthony Doerr, who, as he describes in the following pages, arrived at this gig with his analytical mind prepared and ready. When he began, he pointed out to me the plot holes in certain stories, the inconsistencies and implausibilities. Here’s a secret: every year, in some way, I find myself telling the guest editor that there are not twenty perfect stories. There is not even one perfect story. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing to all people. What one person sees as implausible, another sees as imaginative. You have to keep your eyes on something other than the authors’ missteps to do this work, although of course, too many missteps can sink any story. But in general, you learn to keep your gaze on something bigger and broader, the horizon of a story, say, rather than the potholes. The horizon—the place where voice, mood, plot, characterization, language, and perspective coalesce and expand—the horizon is where you’ll find, as Anthony calls it in his introduction, the “magic.”

  Lately I am drawn to bold stories, stories that without any equivocation go somewhere. Sentences that set something simple and clear on the table. To be bold in one’s writing right now seems to me an act of tremendous courage. The legendary Ursula K. Le Guin never shied away from fearless thinking, and her astonishing story of a woman nursing a wounded mine inspector does not disappoint. Ella Martinsen Gorham’s story, “Protozoa,” rings with poetic assurance: “With crazy eyes she pretended she was about to jump off the edge of an overlook, like the ocean was a trampoline she could bounce on.” In the first sentence of his searing story, Manuel Muñoz does not waste words: “Her immediate concern was money.”

  The stories in this volume are bold, some are transgressive, and all are relevant to this moment in time. Some eschew conventions of plot. Anthony and I discussed the diffuseness of this year’s stories, how wonderfully unfocused and digressive so many were. I have a kneejerk tendency to play armchair psychologist when it comes to trends in short fiction, and I do wonder if because there are so many gripping plots coursing through our country—just read the news any day of the week—story writers are filling their pages with a different kind of thinking now, one more meditative or sprawling as respite from the deluge of conflicts in the real world. I have zero data to back this up, of course, simply my own gut feeling and a very regular diet of short stories. But in this time of so much bad news about our climate, intolerance, corruption, and violence, I’m grateful for these stories and the way they slowed my mind, transported me, and reminded me of the power of language.

  This year we say goodbye to two magazines that have been beacons for writers and readers over the years. Farewell, Glimmer Train and Tin House, and thank you for the enormous amount of beauty that you brought to readers over the years. I also want to thank April Eberhardt, Jenny Xu, and Nicole Angeloro for their invaluable help with this book.

  The stories chosen for this anthology were originally published between January 2018 and January 2019. The qualifications for selection are (1) original publication in nationally distributed American or Canadian periodicals; (2) publication in English by writers who have made the United States or Canada their home; (3) original publication as short stories (excerpts of novels are not considered). A list of magazines consulted for this volume appears at the back of the book. Editors who wish their short fiction to be considered for next year’s edition should send their publications or hard copies of online publications to Heidi Pitlor, c/o The Best American Short Stories, 125 High Street, Boston, MA 02110, or files to [email protected] as attachments.

  Heidi Pitlor


  As a boy I dreamed of becoming a writer, though this was an aspiration I articulated to no one, partially because I lived in rural Ohio and had never met or even glimpsed a writer, and partially because the writers I brought home from the library were all superworldly like Paul Bowles or superfamous like Gabriel García Márquez or superdead like Sarah Orne Jewett, and I was not worldly or famous or dead. Writers seemed a rare and exalted species; I figured I had as much of a chance of growing up to be one as I did of growing up to be a blue whale.

  Yet I wrote. I wrote a nine-page book about snails titled Mollusks (riveting) and typed stories about my Playmobil pirates on my mother’s typewriter, primarily for the pleasure of typing swear words, then frantically covering them up with gobs of Wite-Out. In my teens I scribbled short stories into spiral notebooks, most of which featured a boy who walked out of school in the middle of the day and never returned, because to a kid with a science-teacher mom and a perfect attendance record for four years running, walking out of school in the middle of the day and never returning was the most epic beginning to a story imaginable.

  I didn’t show these stories to anyone. Someday, maybe, long after I was dead, a beautiful and intrepid researcher might unearth my notebooks, decipher my microscopic handwriting, and be overcome by my brilliance. For now the magic of using black marks on a white page to conjure people and places out of nothingness was reward enough.

  Or at least it was enough until our junior-year English teacher announced a forthcoming short story contest. I was not good at basketball, growing facial hair, or talking to girls, but maybe, I thought, maybe I could be good at this. Maybe I could win.

  My current story-in-progress was “Avalanche,” about a boy who strolls out of a trigonometry test, steals a delivery van containing thousands of chocolate bars, and drives to the Yukon only to become caught in (surprise!) an avalanche. I had loads of fun describing the snow whooshing and tumbling and grinding around the van, then switched to the point of view of a nearby dog who, out of the goodness of his dog-heart, begins searching for the buried kid. Then I jumped into some backstory on the dog (nice farm-girl, mean farmer, a misunderstanding involving chickens) and I described how the dog smells all that chocolate through six feet of snow and digs out the boy and they eat frozen Twix bars and the boy never studies trigonometry again.

  Guaranteed victory, right?

  I wasn’t sure. A drip-drip of uncertainty sent me to the library, where I discovered a paperback titled Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, which claimed to reveal “the secrets of the craft.” Though the auth
or, Rust Hills, sounded more like a South Dakota land feature than a short story expert, the jacket copy explained that Mr. Hills worked at Esquire and had discovered all sorts of famous writers, and so it was with a mix of excitement and terror that I toted the book to my attic bedroom.

  “Everyone knows what a short story is anyway,” Mr. Hills began, and I thought, Hmm, everyone? Then he said that “the successful contemporary short story will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form” and I thought, Hmm, what’s an aspect?

  With each passing paragraph my anxiety compounded. “The story writer will not usually elaborate secondary characters,” Mr. Hills declared on page 3, “won’t usually mess much with subplots . . .” Was my runaway dog a secondary character? Maybe he was a subplot?

  “Where the novelist may bounce around in point of view,” Mr. Hills went on, “the short story writer will usually maintain a single point of view . . .”

  Wait, dog point of view wasn’t allowed?

  On page 4 Mr. Hills hurried back to his harmony thing, declaring that in a successful story “everything enhances everything else, interrelates with everything else, is inseparable from everything else—and all this is done with a necessary and perfect economy,” but by then my drip-drip of uncertainty had swelled into a torrent. Rust Hills had published E. Annie Proulx, he had published John Cheever, whose bright-red tome of collected stories my mom kept face-out on the shelf downstairs, he knew the secrets of the craft, and here he was saying that the moves that brought me the most joy—introducing new characters midstream, hopping into the minds of farm animals, and chasing digressions—were exactly the moves I shouldn’t be making.

  I felt like the boy at the end of “Araby,” alone in the darkening bazaar, my eyes burning with anguish. I wanted to make big sprawling jungles but Mr. Hills was saying I ought to be growing little bonsai trees.

  I scrapped “Avalanche” and wrote a new story for the contest, most of which I have blocked from memory, except that it stayed in a single point of view, included zero subplots, contained zero secondary characters, and was zero fun to write. I titled it “Caesura,” despite not really knowing what a caesura was, and handed it in, and did not win the short story contest. My friend Gabe won, for a three-page story in which he told me, laughing, nothing meant anything.