State of the Union

By Hilma Wolitzer
Bill Henderson Joshua Simpson

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

First, a disclaimer: This is not going to be an objective review. I’m a longtime ardent fan of the annual “Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses” anthology. I’ve happily hunkered down in bed with my copy in the winter and gladly schlepped it to the beach in the summer. No other publication I can think of considers nominations of prose and poetry from such an eclectic group of literary sources, sorted through by so many contributing editors — all overseen by the estimable editor and publisher Bill Henderson.

The writers range from the well known, like Rick Moody and Robert Coover, to the soon-to-be-better-known (take your pick). The only prerequisite for inclusion appears to be excellence. And although there’s no thematic imperative, a few common threads emerge in this edition, the 43rd in the series, with the current state of the union (how not?) at the forefront. Mr. Henderson heralds this focus in his introduction. “For many of us, we too live now in an alien world dedicated to power and lies.”

In Julie Hecht’s darkly funny “Taco Night,” the rambling narrator natters on in detail about everything from tree farming to the dog population to episodes of “Downton Abbey” before finally homing in on her true subject — election night 2016 — although she still tries desperately not to hear about or accept its outcome. “All she said was ‘he’ and I said, ‘Please. We can’t talk about it.’ ”

“The Wall” by Robert Coover is a pointedly titled, timely meditation on physical separation and its dire impact on love, while our former Poet Laureate Robert Hass addresses “poor swollen America,” punctured by bullets. 

Two fine back-to-back pieces, “What Has Irony Done for Us Lately” by Pam Houston and “The Tornado Auction” by Karen Russell, lament the persistent human destruction of the natural world. Ms. Russell fantasizes about the harvesting and nurturing of storms, and Ms. Houston asks, rhetorically, “How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe. . . ?”

Personal loss is another recurrent refrain in this collection. In fact, work by three of its contributors, John Ashbery, Tony Hoagland, and Brian Doyle, is published posthumously here. Mr. Hoagland, who died last year at 64, seems prescient in his poem “Into the Mystery” when he writes, “Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening / again.” 

Other recently deceased poets, C.D. Wright and Mark Strand, are remembered in tributes by colleagues and friends. Steve Stern is a reluctant mourner. Of Ms. Wright, “always Carolyn to me,” he says, “I don’t want to write this. . . . It gives me vertigo to find myself hanging around on earth in her absence.” In his essay, he offers samples of her work and a few excerpts from their correspondence, making the reader miss her too.

Loss is also at the center of stories by C.J. Hribal, Myron Taube, and Lisa Taddeo, and a searing memoir of a dead ex-boyfriend by Claire Vaye Watkins. “You were here then you were gone.” 

Other aspects of how we live now are rendered in dynamic takes on racism, sexism, immigration, gender identity, terrorism, income inequality, the fallout of war, and even the national obsession with celebrity. I wish that space allowed for a mention of or a quote from every entry in this rich compilation. Among the standouts are “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” by Courtney Lamar Charleston, “What’s Wrong With You? What’s Wrong With Me?” by J.M Holmes, “Transition: The Renaming of Hope” by Molly Cooney, “Monomoy” by Carl Phillips, “Guerrilla Marketing” by Sanjay Agnihotri, “The Great Meal” by Jung Hae Chae, “Iraq Good” by Hugh Martin, “The Hunter” by Gabriel Daniel Solis, “Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!” by Andrew Mitchell, and “Brace Yourself” by Leslie Jill Patterson.

As David Jauss, a contributing editor, notes, Ms. Patterson’s harrowing second-person story manages to render the horror of sexual abuse without a single scene of the abuse itself. Echoing the title, Mr. Jauss warns: “Reader, brace yourself.”

You might think from some of these examples that this volume is dispiriting, but the sorrow and dismay rendered in its 600 pages are more than mitigated by that prerequisite, the sheer excellence of the writing, and by frequent bursts of humor and optimism. 

In Ms. Taddeo’s terrific “A Suburban Weekend,” the worlds of the wealthy and the middle class collide with comical effect. At the country club pool, swim caps are not required, even for children with long hair, as they are at the town pool, “where the members shed and had split ends.” And at a yard sale one young woman advises another to grab a silk scarf she’s admiring: “Seriously, take it. Or somebody’s grandmother will be wearing it to chemo next week.” The tactics of competitive friendship are dispatched in a few succinct lines. “Liv’s nails were bitten but she had pretty, feminine fingers. Fern’s hands were small, boyish. They looked silly giving hand jobs.”

Julie Hecht’s vegan narrator is subjected to a friend’s mother’s menu planning. “ ‘I like to cook a main course — a roast.’ She started naming all the kinds of roasts she liked to cook: rib roast, roast beef, roasted this animal, roasted that animal. It was hard for me to listen.” 

Sarah Resnick’s hilarious “Kylie Wears Balmain” sends up the cult of “celeb” worship. Her protagonist (referred to only as “the woman”) is hired as a “researcher” for the relentlessly name-dropping periodical The Magazine, where she does alliterative riffs on the Kardashians, fact-checks disparate features like “Standout Sneakers” and “Brushes with Greatness,” and where “Justin Bieber has sent over a special gift: twelve (!) bite-size cupcakes with white and pink frosting. The Magazine has favorably reviewed his new album, and he has sent a thank-you gift. The cupcakes are gone before the woman can push her way to the front.”   

As for optimism in the face of despair, C.D. Wright writes in a letter to Steve Stern, “It’s alright to be depressed just as long / as you don’t let it get you down,” while Pam Houston defiantly celebrates our endangered planet. “I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?” 

It’s encouraging to know that the creative impulse hasn’t been stifled by grim world events, and that so many small presses and literary journals are still flourishing. Sixty-two of them — a record number, according to Bill Henderson — contributed selections to this book. Although he admits “It is hard to laugh and smile. This is not the world we cherish,” he adds, “But of course we cannot and will not retreat.” Mr. Henderson advises readers to “Keep the faith,” and writers to “Stay calm and carry on writing.” 

He dedicated the previous volume of the “Pushcart Prize” to “Barack Obama, the writer,” and this one to his own newborn twin grandsons (citing their innocence and joy) — in other words, to the infinite possibilities of the future.  

Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include “An Available Man” and “The Doctor’s Daughter.” She and her husband lived part time in Springs for a number of years.

Bill Henderson lives in Springs and Maine.