The fifty-eighth volume of Prize Stories, edited by William Abrahams (who has edited the annual volumes since 1967), presents three prize stories and fifteen additional ones chosen from fifteen periodicals out of more than one hundred consulted by the editor. Most of the stories first appeared in “little” magazines, several of them published by university presses. Only six stories came from such magazines of general circulation as the New Yorker (three stories), Atlantic, Mademoiselle, and Esquire. This fact suggests that today the high-quality short story is more likely to be found in a magazine of small or selective circulation than in one well-known to the general public.
In his Introduction, Abrahams comments that most of the eighteen stories follow the naturalistic tradition, presenting life as it is, or was, or might be. “Realistic” would seem a better term (Abrahams himself uses “realism” in introducing the 1977 Prize Stories) since in literary history “naturalistic” has a more specialized meaning than Abrahams intends. Several of the best stories, however, including Woody Allen’s first-prize winner, “The Kugelmass Episode,” depart from the realistic tradition in various ways, and Abrahams sees this as an indication that many writers of today’s stories and those in the future may feel free to leave strict realism and return to such earlier narrative forms as myths, fables, tales of magic and the supernatural, dreams, and fantasies.
Prize Stories presents the work of several young writers as well as that of such older ones as the late Mark Schorer, whose “A Lamp” was awarded second prize. It may be noted also that seven of the writers are or have been professors, a fact suggesting that they may in their teaching influence many short story writers of the future.
The eighteen stories show a great variety in content, character, theme, style, tone, form and point of view. Only the first-prize story is distinctly humorous.
“The Kugelmass Episode,” Woody Allen’s tale of modern magic, uses the well-worn theme of a middle-aged man seeking romance and excitement in an affair; but the treatment refreshingly blends humor, absurdity, illogic, and satire. Professor Kugelmass, scorning the advice of his analyst, achieves temporary escape from a dull and troubled existence and a snappish wife through the magic of The Great Persky, who can transport him from the metropolitan complexity of New York to Emma Bovary’s home in the nineteenth century French village of Yonville and can then as easily bring Emma out of Madame Bovary as he put Kugelmass into the novel. In the brief affair between Kugelmass and Emma, she quickly picks up from her bald Jewish-American lover a modern vernacular speech that is ludicrous and funny. The final failure of Persky’s magic leaves Kugelmass in a situation both pathetic and hilarious.
Mark Schorer’s “A Lamp” pictures a well-to-do American couple in their fifties spending a relaxed six months in Rome after having traveled in eight countries and so many cities they have lost count. Their otherwise well-furnished apartment contains a tall, ugly, iron lamp painted green and intended to resemble a giant stalk of lilies. In a corner of the living room it is unused and out of the way, and yet Franklin and Flora Green cannot ignore it. Finally it comes to seem a symbol, especially after Flora’s dream in which she and her husband are sitting in an antique shop back to back—under the hideous lamp.
Robert Henson’s “The Upper and the Lower Millstone,” winner of third prize, retells the story of the harlot Rahab who, as recounted in the book of Joshua, hid two Israelite spies from the king of Jericho and his soldiers, enabling them to return with their intelligence report and thus prepare for the destruction of the city by an Israelite army. Rahab, in Henson’s story is openly skeptical about any divine source that led to Joshua’s victory. Rather, to her it seems that Joshua prevailed because of his advance planning as a wise military leader. When he informs her that she should not “credit Joshua with deeds no man could do, the Lord not commanding!” she thinks: between the tyranny of Jericho’s king and “this demagoguery, what was there to choose? Like a grain of wheat fallen between two millstones she waited to be ground up.” (Today’s clash of political and religious ideology in the Near East comes to mind.) The young Israelite Solomon speaks up for her, though, and she marries him and bears him a son Boaz, “the same who comforted Ruth when she was a stranger in the land.” Leaving Henson’s story and consulting the first chapter of Matthew, the reader may find it interesting to make a quick genealogical journey through a number of generations from Boaz to Joseph, whose wife was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Alice Adams’s “Beautiful Girl,” in a series of shifts from present to past and back again, pictures wealthy tobacco heiress Ardis Bascombe as she is—“swollen and dead-eyed, as thick-skinned, as a frog,” drinking and...
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