New Findings

Mississippi Review 36.3 (2008) has a great issue on the history and current state of literary magazines.

The spring 2009 issue of the Sewanee Review once again has an essay by Ed Minus reviewing the previous year’s volumes of Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and Best American Poetry.  Minus is unafraid to share his criticism, which is partly why his essays are usually quite delightful to read. One wishes, though, that he would expand the series within his purview to include New Stories from the South and, dare I say, Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri.

Gargoyle issue 53 (2008) has published Susi Klare’s “At the Intersection of Heaven and Hell,” a story about a narrator who attends Burning Man while trying to emotionally come to grips with their child being in Iraq.  The ending is nicely done and Klare gets credit for trying to distill the wildness of the festival into a controlled narration. I happened to attend Burning Man a couple of years ago and was particularly intrigued as to how everyone seemed to imply that the Black Rock desert was extremely dangerous.  “This is the desert man, you could die,” was a mantra I heard numerous times, the idea being that if you simply wandered far out into the desert without water, you wouldn’t make it back.  Klare seems to be picking up on this in that she links this desert with Iraq and the war going on there.  I thought the metaphorical linkage between the danger of both deserts was somewhat forced, but it was nevertheless an interesting “problem” in that it once again illustrates how we continue to misread the desert, interpreting the physical dangers of arid landscapes in metaphysical and/or existential terms.

 Shenandoah has published several interesting pieces lately.  “A Hunter’s Story,” by Jerry D. Mathes II in the winter 2009 issue (58.3) is about more than simply hunting; the narrator, unable to earn a living in rural Idaho where he has grown up, will soon move his family to Nevada where he has found a job.  The hunting trip serves as a kind of goodbye that is made all the more poignant by the author’s clear familiarity with this particular landscape.  The spring/summer 2009 issue (59.1) has a decent story by Geoffrey Becker entitled “Imaginary Tucson,” which explores how isolating it can be to try and carve out an academic career. There is also a wonderful essay by Mary Clearman Blew.  “Shadowing” details how she came to be the dean of nursing at Northern Montana College.  These two pieces nicely complicate one another and should be read together. Hats off to the editor, R. T. Smith, for publishing them in the same volume.


Shameless Self-Promotion

The University of Texas Press has recently listed the new Best of the West book on their website. You can now view the table of contents and even pre-order the book. I am already working on the next volume, so if anyone out there has information about any western short stories published after October 1, 2008, please contact me, Seth Horton, directly at with the author’s name, title of the story, and the publication information (journal title, volume/issue, page numbers). I would be delighted both to consider new work for the next Best of the West volume as well as share the publication information with readers of this blog.

The West in Harper’s and the New Yorker

The March 2009 issue of Harper’s has an essay by Jon Mooallem entitled, “Raiders of the Lost R2: Excavating a Galaxy Far, Far Away,” which details an archaeological expedition in California’s Sand Dunes National Monument that uncovers bits of debris from the Star Wars set. The story of the West as an area that becomes polluted while simultaneously being a space wherein American myths are created is a familiar one, yet this fine essay offers a remarkably fresh take on the subject, in part because Mooallem allows his reader to understand and ultimately sympathize with the Star Wars aficionados that he writes about.

Also, Louise Erdrich has a new story in the November 3, 2008 issue of the New Yorker entitled, “The Fat Man’s Race.” It tells the story of how Grandma Ignatia came to sleep with the devil, reminding me both of a couple of the stories in Annie Proulx’s recently published Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 and the more obscure text, “The Spiritual and Physical Ecstasies of a Sixteenth-Century Beata: Marina de San Miguel Confesses Before the Mexican Inquisition” (1598, reprinted in Colonial Lifes: Documents on Latin American History, 1550-1850, ed. and trans. by Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling). Erdrich’s Grandma Ignatia encounters the devil wearing a blue suit, a blue tie, and blue shoes, whereas he appears to Marina de San Miguel in the false form of Christ. To adequately compare the images in these texts would obviously require a more sensitive historicist approach than I am here able to provide, but the overlap does make me wonder if there has been a Western regionalist study on devil images. If you are aware of any such study, please let us know in the comments section.

I will soon be posting on all of the Alaskan stories I found in last year’s journals. Stay tuned.

Atomic Southwest

The fall 2008 issue of Southwestern American Literature has a special section on the “Atomic Southwest.” I haven’t yet received my copy, either because it isn’t in the mail yet or because my subscription has unintentionally relapsed, but the topic persuaded me to look through my notes on 2008 Western stories to see what creative writers had to say about it. I found two pieces that explore the “post-Western” landscape of nuclear testing: Tracy Daugherty’s “Purgatory, Nevada” (Southwest Review, Volume 93, No. 3, 2008) and Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 84, No. 2, spring 2008).

Daugherty has written prodigiously about the West; much of his work is set in Texas and Oklahoma. His novels include Desire Provoked (1986), What Falls Away (1996), The Boy Orator (1999), and Axeman’s Jazz (2003). He has also written three collections of stories, The Woman in the Oil Field (1996), It Takes a Worried Man (2002), Late in the Standoff (2005), a collection of essays, Five Shades of Shadow (2003), and today his biography on Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (2009), is being published by St. Martin’s Press. I wonder if this latter work has influenced Daugherty, because his recent stories are touched with a light degree of experimentation. “Closed Mondays” (Boulevard, Vol. 22, No. 1, fall 2007), creates a kind of postmodern Texas, going so far to even mention Baudrillard within the narrative. “The Inhalatorium” (Texas Review, Vol. 28, Nos. 3 & 4, fall/winter 2007), which for the sake of full disclosure, I should note will appear in the upcoming Best of the West 2009 anthology, is a story about Robert, a young man whose father has just passed away. His dad had loved west Texas, and when he was still alive, he had once mentioned to Robert that this land had been buried underwater. Part of the ending involves Robert eventually seeing the fish that his dad had described, and the climax is powerful and strange because of the odd combination of a gritty depiction of the landscape coupled with magical realist elements that, one realizes at the end, have been seamlessly woven throughout the entire narrative. In “Purgatory, Nevada,” Daugherty reexamines the issue of nuclear testing (What Falls Away treated this issue as well) and tells the story of Stephen, an architect hired by the feds in the 1940s to build a town in Nevada that will subsequently be destroyed by a nuclear bomb so that U.S. scientists can test the resulting effects. Though the ending is a touch obvious, and though the effects of this project on Stephen’s character feel incomplete, it is still a promising story for anyone interested in the “Atomic Southwest.”

Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg” appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review’s special issue of Superhero Stories. Set in Boilerville, a fictional desert town in California, it investigates the problems that Everett, a young World War II veteran, has reintegrating into American society. We come to learn that he was exposed to radiation during his Pacific tour. Once again, the ending eschews the standard realist plotline, instead depicting an almost comic book character transformation where Everett becomes a kind of nuclear bomb, melting his enemies, girlfriend, parents, and even his entire town. The ending is brilliant, in part because it tacitly links the nuclear test sites of the Southwest with those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, thereby positing a kind of atomic trans-Pacific wasteland.

The stories by Snyder and Daugherty suggest that realist narrative approaches might not be an adequate method for depicting our post-nuclear age. This is, obviously, an extremely tentative assertion, and I will be interested to discover if something like it is fleshed out in more detail by one or more of the contributors to Southwestern American Literature’s “Atomic Southwest” issue.

Best of the West’s Short Story Archive

As many of you may remember, the annual anthology series, The Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, was published in five volumes from 1998-1992. The first two were published by Peregrine Smith Books (Layton, Utah) and the final three by W. W. Norton. Now, James Thomas and I are working together to re-launch the series. The University of Texas Press will publish volumes six, seven, and eight beginning in September.

I’ve been doing research for this series now for several years, which basically consists of reading every nationally distributed North American periodical that I can get my hands on. As many of the stories that deal with the West are never anthologized and might never be included in subsequent short story collections, I thought that it might be helpful for other Western literary scholars if I were to create a kind of archive by posting citations, summaries, and maybe even a few critiques of the Western stories that I come across in my research. Throughout 2009, I will therefore provide comprehensive information about every Western short story that I discover and, when time permits, I’ll also backtrack to discuss a handful of those stories that I found in 2007-2008.

If you have information about a new Western short story that is being published, please contact me directly with the publication information. I’ll then post it to the blog and also consider the story for inclusion in the next Best of the West.