First Prize Winner: Kurt Rheinheimer for “Calendar Girl Arrested, Freed”
An odd and oddly-told tale of a young women, one Bimini Padgett, who inexplicably lives at a shopping mall, where she works at a calendar kiosk. It’s all told as a newspaper report, but the reporter can’t ever get objective enough to stand outside the situation and just tell the story. What is this thing, anyway? Is this a parody of newspaper writing? Is it social commentary on our consumer culture? Is it just a prolonged and carefully construed joke? Or what? Here’s what Ursula Le Guin, the final judge, had to say: “It works marvelously, with ‘this reporter’ becoming an increasingly real presence. A very funny, subtle story, which covers a lot of ground without seeming to, takes big risks and gets away with them, [and] ends brilliantly. . . .” See if you can read this story and resist the temptation to get a copy of Kurt’s 2005 collection, Little Criminals. I couldn’t.
Second Prize Winner: Brendan Kerr for “The Sunbather”
In a competition like this you’re bound to see a lot of great descriptive writing, and so it’s a real feat to get recognition for a story that obtains its gravity from its sensual description. That alone makes “The Sunbather” stand out. But there’s a lot of just-beneath-the-surface stuff going on in this coming-of-age story, too. Here’s Ursula Le Guin again: “[T]he movement of this story is elegant and precise, using the consciousness of the boy to bring a dead dog, a sick mother, and the girl next door all into a precarious and significant balance, while never belaboring the significance.” Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Third Prize Winner: Gregory Loselle for “Buried Dinner”
As the narrator digs in his side yard in an attempt to shore up the foundation of his sinking home, he discovers artifacts of a broken relationship that parallel his own recent experiences with his estranged wife, Brenda. Like “Calendar Girl Arrested, Freed,” this is a story without a straightforward narrative; and like that story, it’s richly comic (in spite of the various tragedies that befall the narrator). “The story is a strong, open metaphor, well carried out,” as Ursula Le Guin said.
Ursula Le Guin also extends her congratulations to all the finalists, assuring us that she enjoyed every story and found selecting three prize winners difficult. Here are the other finalists, listed alphabetically by author’s last name, just as they appear in the book:
Linda Barnhart, “Zagharoot”
When a woman gets a phone call from her ex-husband, who has just lost her job at a massage parlor because she has been exposed as a transsexual, she (the ex-wife) takes up the supporting friend role she (the ex-wife) has always played for her (the ex-husband). This is a story that promises to never be boring and always be more than a little offbeat. The final scene is proof that Fellini wasn’t an oddball surrealist; he was just visionary.
Danya Bush: “Looks Like Newsprint”
Two young girls fall in love at ballet school, and from there a tragedy develops. This one is a little like Dead Poets Society transferred to a Degas painting, with the emphasis on Degas and impressionism. In this short piece, there is a simple, poetic language that develops quickly to put you right there at that school and into the narrator’s point of view. Surprisingly effective.
Gregg Cusick: “My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible”
I first came across this amazing piece while screening stories for the competition, and my first response was to go back and read it again when I reached the end. That’s unusual; if you’ve ever been involved in that sort of process, you’ll know that you typically are looking for every reason to move on and just get it over with. But “My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible” screams to be read again and again. Here’s what goes on in this story: An 83-year-old man tells about his efforts to get his local middle school drama department to produce the play he’s written about the crash of the Shenandoah. But as the piece develops, you realize that you are both stuck in and freed of all temporal constraints. If that sounds nutty, so be it. This is a nutty story--it’s hilarious, it’s tragic, it’s completely original. You can forgive yourself for thinking by the end of this story that the narrator is not really the 83-year-old man he insists that he is throughout. He’s really his 43-year-old son or possibly the principal of the middle school himself. Or maybe he’s just another 13-year-old schoolboy attending the middle school and watching the school play as a plywood blimp floats from one side of the stage to the other. If none of this makes sense, you are forgiven. You must read the story for context. It’s brilliant.
Norman Girault: “You Must Remember This”
This one I’d better not give away too much--it’s way too much fun to read through the whole story of the WWII nurse known as “Nurse Beaver”--and yes, the nickname applies just as you may fear it does. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one with the most epic sweep, covering several sub-plots and many decades, all leading up to a punchline that makes it as memorable as any of your favorite jokes. It’s just pure joy.
James Gish, Jr.: “Voices of the Doomed”
Many years after the fact, the narrator delivers her coming-of-age story, which involves her best friend from childhood, Brendy, and a promise they make to one another. The setting is Bible-belt America, and the details appropriately gothic and ominous. I love the ending, where the narrator finally keeps her promise, in a fashion.
Jendi Reiter: “The Albatross”
Sometimes the order of these stories doesn’t seem so arbitrary. Following “Voices of the Doomed” with this story turns this collection into one that gives a brief glimpse into the dark side of religious fervor. But whereas “Voices of the Doomed” comes more from Flannery O’Connor territory, “The Albatross” features one quite precocious child of New England amid something more like classic American Puritanism, possibly a Salinger character. Funny and poignant.
Lones Seiber: “The Way Home”
This is just a great yarn. A woman gets a call informing her that her Uncle Ray and Aunt Helen have died. As the story develops and we learn about the significance of this aunt and uncle, we (like the narrator) get increasingly less interested in the advice of the other characters who tell the narrator what to do. In the end, she makes the only decision that makes perfect sense, to our great satisfaction.
I’ll second Ursula Le Guin: Congratulations to all the finalists; the fine writing and great imagination poured into each one makes for a great collection the second year running.