Let’s Get Small

By Evan Harris
Bill Henderson

“Pushcart Prize XLII”
Edited by Bill Henderson
Pushcart Press, $19.95

There’s something downright virtuous in welcoming the Pushcart Prize every year. Hello, you editors, writers, and all concerned, I am with you, voting with my reading time for the independent. Read: the not corporate. Let us perpetuate the spirit of independence by participating! 

Pushcart calls itself the “best of the small presses.” Small how? In scale of production, perhaps, in how much cash enters and runs the endeavor, but not, clearly, in breadth of mission. The big, the meaningful, the questions humanity must ask can be found here.

Dwelling for a while in an engaging point of view is what makes reading a joy and a challenge — this year’s Pushcart proposes many rooms in many houses. Particularly interesting is the appearance of the wily first-person plural. This is the “we,” sometimes explicit, sometimes more undercover, sometimes cavorting with and within other points of view. Take these three pieces:

“Memorial Day,” an essay by Brian Doyle (appearing originally in The Sun), is a banner piece in the volume despite — or perhaps because of — its brevity. It does the job in less than two pages, and how fabulous it would be to quote the whole soulful thing right here and now in its entirety so that even more people would read it, but we are not allowed to do that in reviews. In this clear, gorgeous antiwar piece, Mr. Doyle frames it up through the point of view of the “we” of a family attending a Memorial Day parade at which the father, a veteran, will not march. Mr. Doyle then adroitly, in a brilliant four-sentence transition, narrows within the “we” to the third-person “he” of the father’s sentiment toward war, the sense of “we” hovering as rapt listener. 

“He says most wars, maybe all wars, are about money in the end, and that when we hear the beating of war drums, we should suspect that it is really a call for market expansion. He says war is a virus and imagination is the cure.” 

Sujata Shekar’s short story “The Dreams of Kings” (first published in Epoch) is a fever dream of the “we,” scary and instructive and masterful. The “we” here are commuters on the morning ride to office jobs in June in Mumbai. It is beyond crowded on the train, bodies stuffed in. A pickpocket is discovered in their midst, and the crowd sets upon him: “We improvise. We scrunch up on the handlebars and slam down with our heels. We pry open his fingers and bend them back one by one, until they snap like the tips of the freshest and most succulent okra.” 

If the first-person plural has a job to do here, it is that of asking: What are the dire, violent wages of indignity? Who pays? Ms. Shekar asks insistently and with precision.

Joyce Carol Oates fans will not be disappointed by her contribution (from Conjunctions), “Undocumented Alien.” This short story takes the form of a lab report of the PROJECT JRD Laboratory (Institute for Independent Neurophysiological Research), written by the implied “we” of postdoc staff. A human lab subject is observed under the hideous psychological and physical conditions created for him by unspeakably unethical experimentation. The point of view is excessively objective, lacking in emotional response to the events described. Who do we become as complicit onlookers to the unethical, the inhumane? 

Also of note (from another point of view) is the story “Mentor” (from Crazyhorse) by Mark Jude Poirier, a tour de force of the second person. Here, “you” is the gay assistant headmaster of a private school who takes a male student, whom he presumes to be gay, into his sights, casting himself as mentor. In this scene he is assisting with the college entrance process: “You convince yourself you’re helping him, but you allow your erection to form as you watch him squirm. You tell him he can finally be himself when he goes away to college. He acts as if he doesn’t understand. But he knows exactly what you’re implying. You’re not subtle.” 

Mr. Poirier pulls the reader back to observe the “you” yet also nestles the narrative so cozily with the interior of that “you” that the reader is faced with the complex inner workings of self-knowledge, self-control and lack thereof, and direly misplaced self-righteousness. This is stunningly strong stuff. Reread and find yourself deeper in the complexity, not done with it. 

Good old-fashioned omniscient third-person narration also has its place here. Don’t miss the closely, emotionally observed narration of “Dixon” by Bret Anthony Johnston (from Virginia Quarterly Review). A father’s love for his troubled teenage daughter drives and defines him as he stumbles through the landscape of crisis. Information is slowly meted out; the reader is left to ponder what we really know about parenting, right choices, and which way the wind will blow, ill or otherwise.

Finally, the tried-and-true first person is of course not absent from this year’s Pushcart. Of interest are the lead story in the volume, “Catacombs” by Jason Zencka (first appearance in One Story), and “Famous Actor” by Jess Walter (from Tin House). Both are funny, sad, written with stylish wisdom, and involve the disappearance of a teenage sibling, loss being the monolithic cornerstone of character development for each narrator. 

Also flip to the essay “Tolstoy and God” by Brian Morton (first published in Agni), which is hilarious and details his run-in as a first-time novelist with the weirdness of the publishing industry through an encounter with the writer Saul Bellow. “It felt really big to me, and it also felt really weird. Bellow was not only blurbing it, he was going to blurb it without having read it. And he was not only blurbing it without having read it, he was going to say that ‘Morton may well prove to be the most distinguished moral intelligence of his generation.’ ”

And if you read this essay, you get to meet Mr. Morton’s girlfriend, Heather, who is outrageous, of steely intelligence, and a person with whom I would like to be friends, sight unseen.

With whatever “we” I can collect within or about me, I’ll be looking forward to next year’s Pushcart, again. Independent and small, do not fail us.

Evan Harris is author of “The Quit.” She lives in East Hampton. 

Bill Henderson, the editor of the Pushcart Prize, lives in Springs.