University of Georgia Press

Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

Nancy Zafris, Series Editor

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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All My Relations

Christopher McIlroy

Set against the stark but seductive landscape of the American Southwest, the stories in All My Relations explore the inner landscape of mind and heart, where charting the simplest course is subject to a complex constellation of relationships. In the title story of the collection, a Pima Indian hires on with a rancher in an attempt to quit drinking and to win back the wife and son who have left him. His efforts to master land and horses and to bake the perfect cake mirror his efforts to subdue his own demons and to embrace a peaceful domesticity.

In "The Big Bang and the Good House", Tony, a former drug dealer, pits his urge toward chaos against the orderly pleasures of marriage, finally yielding to the solidity and spaciousness of domestic love: "I feel myself gathering weight, density. Cautiously, I allow myself to inhabit this Good House, which surprisingly fits like my own body". Julia, the aging protagonist of "Simplifying", risks her fragile health in a love affair; her generosity of spirit toward her lover is matched in inverse proportion by the frugality with which her lover doles out his affections. In "The March of the Toys", a young woman flees Delaware, her chronically ill father, and her grieving mother, only to find that she's traded the neediness of her family for the harrowing disturbances of her lovers. She muses, "I couldn't affect anyone's life. I could only attend it".

In "Hualapai Dread", an investment broker's infatuation with an enigmatic Hualapai Indian woman, as elusive as she is beautiful, brings out his most predatory instincts and unmasks her own deceit. Acting on similar but more destructive impulses toward the object of his sexual obsession, a character in another story takes his soon-to-be ex-wife on a bizarre "honeymoon for divorce". The close-knit family of "Builders" breaks under the strain of constructing their dream house with their own hands, and eventually they are forced to leave behind the illusion of safety and permanence: "Once the three had imagined themselves as a house on a hill, dug into stone with the tenacity of a lion. Now they sat tensely in canvas-backed chairs stretched like slingshots. They talked cautiously, with encouragement, hoping for the return of pleasure".

Embodying the transience and openness of the New West, the characters in All My Relations reinvent themselves, even as they struggle with the age-old, perilous necessity of loving.

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At-Risk

Amina Gautier

In Amina Gautier’s Brooklyn, some kids make it and some kids don’t, but not in simple ways or for stereotypical reasons. Gautier’s stories explore the lives of young African Americans who might all be classified as “at-risk,” yet who encounter different opportunities and dangers in their particular neighborhoods and schools and who see life through the lens of different family experiences.

Gautier’s focus is on quiet daily moments, even in extraordinary lives; her characters do not stand as emblems of a subculture but live and breathe as people. In “The Ease of Living,” the young teen Jason is sent down south to spend the summer with his grandfather after witnessing the double murder of his two best friends, and he is not happy about it. A season of sneaking into as many movies as possible on one ticket or dunking girls at the pool promises to turn into a summer of shower chairs and the smell of Ben-Gay in the unimaginably backwoods town of Tallahassee. In “Pan Is Dead,” two half-siblings watch as the heroin-addicted father of the older one works his way back into their mother’s life; in “Dance for Me,” a girl on scholarship at a posh Manhattan school teaches white girls to dance in the bathroom in order to be invited to a party.

As teenagers in complicated circumstances, each of Gautier’s characters is pushed in many directions. To succeed may entail unforgiveable compro­mises, and to follow their desires may lead to catastrophe. Yet within these stories they exist and can be seen as they are, in the moment of choosing.

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Ate It Anyway

Ed Allen

In the limbo bounded by rebellion and resignation, belonging and solitude, Ed Allen's middle Americans seem to be either freely adrift or uncomfortably vested in an exit strategy wholly inadequate for their circumstances. These sixteen darkly humorous stories gauge the tension between what we really feel and what we outwardly express, what we should do and what we manage to get done.

In "Celibacy-by-the-Atlantic," Phil negotiates a lingering, low-intensity regret brought on by the annual family get-together at his parents' beach house, where memories of his aimless, privileged adolescence mingle with forebodings of his aimless, privileged middle age. In "A Lover's Guide to Hospitals," Carl lies in bed, pining over a stillborn romance through a moody, post-op haze of painkillers. As a consoling needle through the heart, the object of Carl's unrequited affections also turns out to be his nurse.

In "Burt Osborne Rules the World," a precocious boy ponders his childhood in "a world protected against anything you could imagine doing to make it more interesting." Sensing that only more of the same awaits him as an adult, Burt charts a different course--as a class clown with a truly toxic sense of mischief. Others, like Lydia in "Ralph Goes to Mexico," assert their individuality more effortlessly, for they're just too naturally odd to be cowed by convention. Lydia's dilemma is whether she should have her leukemic cat stuffed and mounted or turned into a hat after he dies.

These lyrical tales celebrate the ordinary--and the not so ordinary--with a flourish of Nabokovian wit that combines grandeur, kitsch, and the author's broad empathy with his characters.

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Bear Down, Bear North

Alaska Stories

Melinda Moustakis

In her debut collection, Melinda Moustakis brings to life a rough-and-tumble family of Alaskan homesteaders through a series of linked stories. Born in Alaska herself to a family with a homesteading legacy, Moustakis examines the near-mythological accounts of the Alaskan wilderness that are her inheritance and probes the question of what it means to live up to larger-than-life expectations for toughness and survival.

The characters in Bear Down, Bear North are salt-tongued fishermen, fisherwomen, and hunters, scrappy storytellers who put themselves in the path of destruction—sometimes a harsh snowstorm, sometimes each other—and live to tell the tale. While backtrolling for kings on the Kenai River or filleting the catch of the Halibut Hellion with marvelous speed, these characters recount the gamble they took that didn’t pay off, or they expound on how not only does Uncle Too-Soon need a girlfriend, the whole state of Alaska needs a girlfriend. A story like “The Mannequin at Soldotna” takes snapshots: a doctor tends to an injured fisherman, a man covets another man’s green fishing lure, a girl is found in the river with a bullet in her head. Another story offers an easy moment with a difficult mother, when she reaches out to touch a breaching whale.

This is a book about taking a fishhook in the eye, about drinking cranberry lick and Jippers and smoking Big-Z cigars. This is a book about the one good joke, or the one night lit up with stars, that might get you through the winter.

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Bigness of the World

Lori Ostlund

In Lori Ostlund's debut collection people seeking escape from situations at home venture out into a world that they find is just as complicated and troubled as the one they left behind.

In prose highlighted by both satire and poignant observation, Ostlund offers characters that represent a different sort of everyman—men and women who poke fun at ideological rigidity while holding fast to good grammar and manners, people seeking connections in a world that seems increasingly foreign. In “Upon Completion of Baldness” a young woman shaves her head for a part in a movie in Hong Kong that will help her escape life with her lover in Albuquerque. The precocious narrator of “All Boy” finds comfort when he is locked in a closet by a babysitter. In “Dr. Deneau's Punishment” a math teacher leaving New York for Minnesota as a means of punishing himself engages in an unsettling method of discipline. A lesbian couple whose relationship is disintegrating flees to the Moroccan desert in “The Children beneath the Seat.” And in “Idyllic Little Bali” a group of Americans gathers around a pool in Java to discuss their brushes with fame and ends up witnessing a man's fatal flight from his wife.

In the eleven stories in The Bigness of the World we see that wherever you are in the world, where you came from is never far away.

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Black Elvis

Geoffrey Becker

In this funny, touching collection about music, identity, liars, and love, Geoffrey Becker brings us into the lives of people who have come to a turning point and lets us watch as they take, however clumsily, their next steps.

In the title story, an aging black singer who performs only Elvis songs despite his classic bluesman looks has his regular spot at the local blues jam threatened by a newly arrived Asian American with the unlikely name Robert Johnson. In “Man Under,” two friends struggling to be rock musicians in Reagan-era Brooklyn find that their front door has been removed by their landlord. An aspiring writer discovers the afterlife consists of being the stand-in for a famous author on an endless book tour in “Another Coyote Story.” Lonely and adrift in Florence, Italy, a young man poses as a tour guide with an art history degree in “Know Your Saints.” And in “This Is Not a Bar,” a simple night on the town for a middle-aged guitar student and jazz buff turns into a confrontation with his past and an exploration of what is or is not real.

In his depictions of struggling performers, artists, expectant parents, travelers, con-men, temporarily employed academics, and even the recently deceased, Becker asks the question, Which are more important: the stories we tell other people or the ones we tell ourselves?

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Break Any Woman Down

Dana Johnson

In Break Any Woman Down, Dana Johnson explores race, identity, and alienation with unflinching honesty and vibrant language. Hip and seductive, her stories often feature women discovering their identities through sexual and emotional intimacy with the men in their lives.

In the title story, La Donna is a black stripper whose white boyfriend, an actor in adult movies, insists that she stop stripping. In "Melvin in the Sixth Grade," eleven-year-old Avery has a crush on a white boy from Oklahoma who, like Avery, is an outsider in their suburban Los Angeles school. "Markers" is as much about a woman's relationship with her mother as it is about the dissolution of her relationship with an older Italian man.

Dana Johnson has an intuitive sense of character and a gift for creating authentic voices. She effortlessly captures the rhythmic vernaculars of Los Angeles, the American South, and various immigrant communities as she brings to life the sometimes heavyhearted, but always persevering, souls who live there.

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Brief History of Male Nudes in America

Stories by Dianne Nelson Oberhansly

In these stories, Dianne Nelson illuminates that vast territory of pleasure and pain created within modern families. Whether it is a father trying to kidnap his young son from his estranged ex-wife or a woman celebrating her ability to produce babies without any help from men, Nelson's characters reveal the dark, haunting and sometimes comic dilemmas of kinship.

In the title story, seventeen-year-old April is an involuntary witness to the seemingly endless parade of lovers who frequent her mother's bed. "I don't know why my mother finds no lasting peace" she muses. Opening a book and trying to find her peace in "facts, dates, the pure honesty of numbers," April is overwhelmed finally by the sounds of lovemaking from the adjoining room. "The walls of this house aren't thick enough to keep that kind of sadness contained." In "The Uses of Memory," Netta and Carlene are engaged in a different sort of mother-daughter drama. The issue at hand is the fate of Franklin, their husband and father, who lies in bed in a near comatose state, oblivious to the nurturings or pleadings of either woman.

The past, with its countless repercussion on the present, tugs relentlessly at many of the characters. In "Chocolate," the lingering pain of an impoverished childhood plagues Janice; she recalls, in particular, the birthday and Christmas celebrations, the meager gifts wrapped in the same brown twine that was used to hold the door shut. Hillary, the narrator of "Dixon," is spurred into action by the memory of her dead brother. When a local barfly with "silt for brains" persists in telling outlandish lies about Dixon, Hillary takes up karate training with an eye to defending her brother's name the truth of what she knew him to be. Dee, in "Paperweight," can pinpoint the exact moment at which she came to think of the body as an earthbound trap, "a hopeless house with the doors all locked"; she traces it back to a grade-school theatrical performance and a classmate's luckless efforts to open the cumbersome stage curtains. "If it weren't for my body," she laments, "I could fly, I could go anywhere, I could be anything."

Ranging in setting from a restaurant in St. Louis to the rain-soaked streets of San Francisco, from a boisterous family reunion beneath the broad Kansas sky to a ranch in Utah where a young father dreams of becoming a movie star, these fifteen stories show men and women pondering--and often struggling against--the mysteries of their own circumstances, especially the bonds of flesh and blood.

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Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Monica McFawn

In the eleven kaleidoscopic stories that make up Bright Shards of Someplace Else, Monica McFawn traces the combustive, hilarious, and profound effects that occur when people misread the minds of others. The characters—an array of artists, scientists, songwriters, nannies, horse trainers, and poets—often try to pin down another’s point of view, only to find that their own worldview is far from fixed.

The characters in McFawn’s stories long for and fear the encroachment of others. A young boy reduces his nanny’s phone bill with a call, then convinces her he can solve her other problems. A man who works at a butterfly-release business becomes dangerously obsessed with solving a famous mathematical proof. A poetry professor finds himself entangled in the investigation of a murdered student. In the final story, an aging lyricist reconnects with a renowned singer to write an album in the Appalachian Mountains, only to be interrupted by the appearance of his drug-addicted son and a mythical story of recovery.

By turns exuberant and philosophically adroit, Bright Shards of Someplace Else reminds us of both the limits of empathy and its absolute necessity. Our misreadings of others may be unavoidable, but they themselves can be things of beauty, charm, and connection.

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CAUTION Men in Trees

Darrell Spencer

The nine stories of CAUTION Men in Trees capture the pressure, need, and frequent helplessness of people confronted with intractable reality. As suggested by the collection's epigraph from Superman—"Did you say kryptonite?"—the characters in these stories have reached a point where they realize that parts of their lives are coming undone, and that their own thoughts and actions—or, frequently, the failure to act soon enough—are the cause. Though settings and situations vary, the same sense of overwhelming urgency recurs throughout the collection. The stories reflect a world distressed by conflict and settings fraught with the occurrences of personal violence.

Against the background of the O. J. Simpson trial, a man refuses to assist in a friend's suicide and realizes that he has been avoiding many unpleasant truths about himself and his life. A son faced with his father's debilitating stroke sees that he must ultimately confront the mortality and feelings of grief that he has been concealing. In the title story, the film Bugsy and talk about the disappointing reality of pop-culture heroes set the scene for a husband's frightening confrontation with his own limitations. The shock of stark revelation combines with tightly wound chains of suggestive events to create a collection of gripping, edgy stories about characters who, however battered, survive.

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