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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Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

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Ghost Traps

Robert Abel

Ghost Traps is a collection of twelve stories about characters who are on the edge and under duress, individuals backed against a wall as they try to free themselves from their own limitations, habits, and destructive desires.

In the title story, Harper learns to fish from a man whose son is “catching hell” in the Korean War. When the son returns, he begins stealing lobsters from Harper’s traps, and Harper, out of a sense of obligation and guilt, teaches him to fish, vainly hoping it will help the man put together the pieces of a life that war shattered. In “The Connoisseur,” a wealthy collector on an archeological dig in the Himalayan foothills realizes he “knows how to stay out of jail, charge rent, build hotels, and pass Go,” but has not spiritual life. Unlike his guide, a Sherpa, who could remain content with nothing but the Himalayas, the collector finds himself wanting in all but material success.

Whether they win or lose, Robert Abel’s characters make the best of circumstance with creativity, wit, passion, and endurance. In “Lawless in New York,” Professor Alice Reinquist, the sole woman in her university’s delegation to an academic conference, maintains her sense of humor by thinking of Wonder Woman’s Gold Lasso, which makes “even the most cunning of evildoers unable to prevaricate.” Tracey Wynn, a woman who considers herself on loan to her aloof boyfriend, keeps her options open by always leaving a portion of her neck exposed because she “cannot stand being closed in by anything and because she knows it invites at least a fantasy kiss.” In “Appetizer,” a man fishing in Alaska resourcefully asks two hungry grizzly bears, “How much love can $600 worth of salmon buy?”

Although many of these characters inhabit a world in which the bottom is about to fall out, they invariably find good reason—and courage—to take the next treacherous step. From the salty waters of Cape Cod Canal to the mountains of Tibet; from a Puerto Rican pub to an elegant New York bar where “Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer had no doubt insulted each other,” Ghost Traps is filled with people hustling for survival and fighting for identity in a world reluctant to give anyone an even break.

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How Far She Went

Mary Hood

Mary Hood's fictional world is a world where fear, anger, longing--sometimes worse--lie just below the surface of a pleasant summer afternoon or a Sunday church service.

In "A Country Girl," for example, she creates an idyllic valley where a barefoot girl sings melodies "low and private as a lullaby" and where "you could pick up one of the little early apples from the ground and eat it right then without worrying about pesticide." But something changes this summer afternoon with the arrival at a family reunion of fair and fiery Johnny Calhoun: "everybody's kind and nobody's kin," forty in a year or so, "and wild in the way that made him worth the trouble he caused."

The title story in the collection begins with a visit to clean the graves in a country cemetery and ends with the terrifying pursuit of a young girl and her grandmother by two bikers, one of whom "had the invading sort of eyes the woman had spent her lifetime bolting doors against."

In the story "Inexorable Process" we see the relentless desperation of Angelina, "who hated many things, but Sundays most of all," and in "Solomon's Seal" the ancient anger of the mountain woman who has crowded her husband out of her life and her heart, until the plants she has tended in her rage fill the half-acre. "The madder she got, the greener everything grew."

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Imaginary Lives of Mechanical Men

Stories by Randy F. Nelson

The mechanical men in these stories--Industrial Age holdovers, outsiders wanting for relevance and respect, or overwhelmed people who confuse the certainties of one reality with the doubts of another--are cut off in some way from contemporary culture.

Sometimes in these stories, which Randy F. Nelson calls "thought experiments about values in conflict," the characters are like the Native American prison guard in "Escape": Rifkin thinks that atonement is possible even for fugitive killers. Others are less sanguine. In "Breakers," a corporate hitman arrives on a forgettable island off the African coast. His mission: to shut down a hellish, polluting, ship-demolition business. His nemesis: a lawyer, now gone Heart-of-Darkness crazy, who preceded him years earlier for the same purpose. The bottom drops out in other stories, rearranging all reference points to good and bad, true and false. In "Abduction," for instance, a distraught young woman summons a tabloid reporter to a grubby hotel room, where the now-lifeless alien who had invaded her body lies wrapped in a sheet.

Nelson once explained his motivations by alluding to a line in a Gabriel García Márquez story. A crowd of villagers are gazing upon a man, "but even though they were looking at him, there was no room for him in their imagination." "Stories and characters and situations that ask the imagination to accommodate something bigger, further, deeper--that's what I'm after," said Nelson.

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Invention of Flight

Susan Neville

Susan Neville combines a gift for language with a subtle eye and a fine instinct for character. Her characters—and her settings—are, most of them, midwestern. There is the staunchly midwestern wife in the story "Kentucky People," for instance. She was born in this house in this Indiana town, a world far removed from people like Mrs. Lovelace, next door, transient people "who have followed the industrial revolution from Kentucky to Indiana and most of whom are now in Texas." Nothing really out of the way has ever happened to her. Now she "shivers with excitement" when she is called upon to help Mrs. Lovelace throw her husband out—helps her haul all of his belongings out onto the porch: underwear, shoes, whiskey bottles, rolltop desk, even "wedding presents from his side of the family."

The collection moves from the playful tone of "Johnny Appleseed," in which the author takes an old fecundity myth and does something different with it, to the wise and poignant story of an elderly woman attending a family gathering at which she recognizes the separateness from her children and grandchildren that the cancer within her has given her. It has been months since any one of them has kissed her on the mouth. There are so many things that she would like to tell them, "but they don't want to talk about it, each one of them positive that he is the one human being in the history of the earth who will never ever die."

All of the stories in this unusual first collection stick in the reader's mind long after he has read them.

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The Invisibles

Hugh Sheehy

Though Hugh Sheehy's often tragic, sometimes gruesome stories feature bloodied knives and mysterious disappearances, at the heart of these thoughtful thrillers are finely crafted character studies of people who wrestle with the darker aspects of human nature—grief, violence, loneliness, and the thoughts of crazed minds.

Sheehy's stories shine a spotlight on the bleak fringes of America, giving voice to the invisibles who need it most. A dismal assistant teacher spiking her coffee after school is suddenly locked in a basement with a student who has just witnessed his father's murder. A seventeen-year-old girl at a skate rink whose name no one can remember is motherless, friendless, and sure she will be the next to go. The heartbroken victim of a miscarriage dreams of her fetus's voyage through the earth's plumbing. The estranged addict son, certain of his innate goodness, loses himself in a blizzard and fails his family again. Sheehy's characters learn that however invisible they may feel and whatever their intentions, their actions incur a cost both to themselves and those around them. They struggle to tame or come to terms with the forces they meet—the tragedies—that are far larger than their small existences. In this debut, Sheehy illuminates the all-but-silent note of adult loneliness and how we cope with it or, perhaps, just move past it.

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Large Animals in Everyday Life

Wendy Brenner

The eleven stories in Wendy Brenner's debut story collection concern people who are alone or feel themselves to be alone: survivors negotiating between logic and faith who look for mysterious messages and connections in everyday life, those sudden transformations and small miracles that occur in mundane, even absurd settings.

Brenner's stories range in setting from the rural and southern (a rotating country music bar, a dog track/jai alai compound, a grocery store, a natural cold springs sinkhole) to the urban and high-tech (absurdly bureaucratic companies and academic departments and a food irradiation plant). Often young and tough women seeking to hone their survival sensibilities, Brenner's characters are a mix of the everyday and the fantastic: frustrated secretaries and scientists, a young supermodel, precocious children, fierce plumbers and mechanics, a psychic grandmother, an unhappy lottery winner, a desperate grocery-store mascot in an animal suit. And then there are the animals—real ones of all kinds who turn up at unlikely moments and often seem to be trying to help.

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Living with Snakes

Daniel Curley

In Daniel Curley's stories, passionate rage and cool, clear hatred alter the terms of even the most basic human relationships, etching odd patterns on the surface of the natural world--a man applies the methods of Mata-Hari to the task of keeping track of his ex-wife; the victim of a pickpocket plots psychological revenge on the criminal population of a Mexico City bus line; a spurned lover summons all his strength and courage to liberate a roomful of snakes held captive by his rival.

For the most part, the figures in the landscape of these stories are men and women performing the rituals that lead to and away from marriage. In "The First Baseman," a man in the process of getting a divorce falls in love with a player on a woman's softball team, but their conversation never goes far beyond the subject of her batting average. In "Trinity," an estranged couple brought together again by the death of their daughter finds that they cannot recreate either their love or their child. And in "Wild Geese," a man's dream about his childhood, when flocks of geese patterned the sky, is interrupted and finally shot-through by fevered images of a tedious dinner party.

Nature exists as a refuge in these stories, but it is a refuge mostly to be found in the shadow of the fear of death; in the recesses of memory; beyond the bars that isolate zoo animals from an unruly world. Demonically honest and sometimes violently funny, Living with Snakes tells of a world where love is at best a touch-and-go sort of thing, where sometimes men and women are bound together not so much by affection as by mutual loss, mutual pain.

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Love, in Theory

Ten Stories

E. J. Levy

In this funny, brainy, thoroughly engaging debut collection, an award-winning writer looks at romance through the lens of scholarly theories to illuminate love in the information age.

In ten captivating and tender stories, E. J. Levy takes readers through the surprisingly erotic terrain of the intellect, offering a smart and modern take on the age-old theme of love—whether between a man and woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, or a mother and a child—drawing readers into tales of passion, adultery, and heartbreak. A disheartened English professor's life changes when she goes rock climbing and falls for an outdoorsman. A gay oncologist attending his sister's second wedding ponders dark matter in the universe and the ties that bind us. Three psychiatric patients, each convinced that he is Christ, give rise to a love affair in a small Minnesota town. A Brooklyn woman is thrown out of an ashram for choosing earthly love over enlightenment. A lesbian student of film learns theories of dramatic action the hard way—by falling for a married male professor. Incorporating theories from physics to film to philosophy, from Rational Choice to Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, these stories movingly explore the heart and mind—shooting cupid's arrow toward a target that may never be reached.

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Nervous Dancer

Stories by Carol Lee Lorenzo

The lives on view in Nervous Dancer are complex and precarious. Speaking their familial idioms in tones and cadences determined well before they ever appeared in these stories, Carol Lee Lorenzo's characters surge into moments of change for reasons initially not apparent. In the quirky, hard-edged ways in which they stumble, beg, come of age, fall apart, and reunite, they reveal no simple notions about life.

The way women and children see men is often the focus of these stories, and female voices are the most numerous in Nervous Dancer. Singularity of character can be found in anyone, however, such as the nameless father in "Unconfirmed Invitations," whose guilt over his drinking and marital infidelities leads to a bizarre hunter-gatherer compulsion. Lorenzo's women are often mothers, like LuAnn Wilson Hunter in "Something Almost Invisible," who says of herself and her son that they are "divorced from everything, we are all living in slow motion, not at home anywhere." Others find themselves in double binds with generational friction compounding their troubles, such as Eulene in "Nervous Dancer," who informs her mother, "Just because I'm in your house doesn't mean I've lost the right to fight with my husband."

Lorenzo says that her characters are "in the throes of love with its impurities or as sterling as it comes, and sometimes they trip the spring and the hard face of hate appears." She believes that "it's not always the outside force, someone else's doing, that changes things or brings confrontation. It's our stranger within--our unspoken self that frightens and engages us. That's what story allows us to see."

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No Lie Like Love

Paul Rawlins

A shady financier visits his small hometown, a middle-aged divorcé emerges from a life of drastic austerity and self-denial, a sick and dying professor discovers the healing touch of a former student. From the South African veldt to the barren Utah desert, from the green lawns of suburbia to moonlit Pueblo ruins, the people in Paul Rawlins's debut story collection brave the Big Questions about relationships, love, and death, finding more often than not that their happiness to just get by is not enough. Asking for truth or understanding, but hoping the answers will be simple, they struggle with feelings often too deep, too new, too disquieting to articulate.

The voices we hear most often belong to men—good men who have somehow come up short on love, answers, peace, time. Like the pro football player with a torn-up knee in "Big Texas," the HIV-positive teen in "The Matter of These Hours," or the recovering heroin addict in "August—Staying Cool," they find that age, accident, or self-made circumstances have stolen their abilities, stung their pride, or worse. Dangerously distanced from the women they should have loved more, they draw closer to buddies, brothers, fathers, and sons.

But like the alkali flats in "Good for What Ails You," transformed by flash-flooding into an inland sea, Rawlins's characters show themselves capable of quick and fundamental change. Farmers and soldiers, athletes and scholars, rebels and high rollers, they fit our preconceptions only in the shallowest sense. In the ways they connect with Rawlins's elemental imagery—sun, water, earth—these people play with our essential notions about men and women as they surprise themselves about their strengths, about what they really desire and what others desire in them.

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