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I’ve never reviewed a collection of short stories before, and from reading reviews on Amazon, it seems like the domain of intellectual analysis and exact prose. Thus, I feel intimidated. Is it the job of the reviewer to comment on the quality of each individual story or also on the compiling skills of the editor in choosing pieces that work in concert?
When you look at all the grumbling about Between Men 2 (Alyson Books, 2009), another anthology of “original fiction by today’s best gay writers,” the primary complaint against it seemed to be that the selected voices often spoke of conflicts and grievances that were allegedly more relevant ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Furthermore, some selections were apparently portions of larger works and were not, in the reviewers’ opinions, readable pieces on their own. When reading the barbs foisted upon Best American Short Stories 2009 (Houghton Mifflin), I found gripes about “feminist editorial bias” and writing for “style instead of content.” Now I have not read most of the stories in Between Men 2 nor Best American Short Stories 2009, but what I gather from their low ratings is that it’s close to impossible to select fifteen to twenty stories and have an overwhelming majority of readers love all of them.
If it helps to know the “editorial bias,” then I can tell you that Steve Berman is known for an interest in slipstream-slash-paranormal fiction as well as YA. There are some wonderful stories with spec fic elements in this anthology such as “Haunting Your House” by Sam J. Miller and Steve Berman’s own “Kinder” about the curator of a hat museum vexed by German spirits. As for young protagonists, the first third of the book seems to be devoted to teen characters. As the battle for gay rights and the tribulations of the coming out process are now often played out in high school, perhaps this is what can be considered our current area of conflict or at least one of the most evident. Jeff Solomon’s “Best Friend” and Richard Zimler’s “A Dry Past” were powerful and heartbreaking stories of troubled youth. Craig Laurence Gidney’s imagining of a young, penniless Arthur Rimbaud traveling to Paris is rewarding for its lush prose and vivid detail. The merciless, edgy quality to Jeff Leavell’s “Beautiful” is an example of a contemporary movement towards fascinating, dark cruelties in gay fiction, exemplified in publications such as Velvet Mafia. At the other end of the spectrum was David Levithan’s “Starbuck’s Boy,” which, while farfetched, was a charming and enjoyable romance.
Berman’s choices do range much further than YA or spec fic. Examples of other pieces I loved include Trebor Healey’s superb road story “St. Andy,” Jameson Currier’s evocative and poignant “Chelsea Rose,” and J.M. Snyder’s lovely ode to romance in the twilight years, “Henry and Jim.” That last story had me in tears. (On the other hand, Welsh absurdist author Rhys Hughes had me chuckling at his bewildering imagination.) There is a bit of non-fiction (I think) as well, including a remarkable treatise on erotic bondage and the eternal sacrifice of the divine from Jeff Mann and a humorous remembrance of high school theater from Aaron Shurin.
There are a few more pieces such as those from John Morgan Wilson, John Stahle, and Raphael Kadushin that I enjoyed, and, of course, a couple that didn’t quite do it for me that I won’t name. However, I did come to one conclusion. Within the small word of gay fiction and the short span of one year, there isn’t an unlimited quantity of fantastic short stories from which to choose. Furthermore, Berman qualified in his introduction that each story should leave the reader impassioned or enlightened. The fact that such a strong collection is possible in an era when the short story is considered “dead” is both extraordinary and reassuring. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gavin Atlas