In the land of American Idol and endless "favorite 100 kid stars of the 80's" countdowns on VH1, there's nothing that entertains better than a) contests, and b) best-of lists, compiled for our covenience. Both lend themselves well to the real fun, which is betting on who the chosen ones will be, and arguing for favorites who were unfairly passed over. The literary world doesn't shy away from this. Pick up any issue of Poets and Writers magazine and the listings of contest finalists wlll be the thickest part of the whole publication. The Nobel, Booker, and National Book Award finalists are endlessly discussed. And there's a whole host of annual best-of publications that come out every year, some of them so highly specific as to be redundant. The Best American series publishes annual books of sports writing, science writing, essays, and magazine writing. If you wrote an essay about, say, the physics of sports, and it was published in a magazine, which book would they put you in? All four?
I haven't even gotten to Best New American Voices, Best Nonrequired Reading, Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, Best American Comics -- and that's just ONE Houghton Mifflin series. There are other volumes as well, like Da Capo's Best Music Writing, the O. Henry Prize Stories and occasional magazine issues like Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists, and the New Yorker's New Fiction Issue. The ultra-narrow specificity of the best-of books can get a little annoying. The magazines that the editors draw on in order to compile the list is, similarly, ultra-narrow. Lately, Best American Short Stories will throw a bone to small and innovative publications like One Story, but for the most part you'll see a lot of Harper's, New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly reprints.
All of this is just a preamble to my real point: thank heavens for the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. If you want to know where the real engine driving American writing is, one must look to the indie presses and magazines run by people with day jobs who do it out of the love in their hearts for literature, and who don't give a crap about losing subcribers (possibly because they don't have any). The brick-sized 32nd annual Puschcart Prize Anthology throws together memoir, essay, fiction, poetry, science, sports, and music writing, and a bunch of unclassifiable works that wouldn't comfortably fit in any of the tiny niches the Best American crew has carved out.
Pushcart Prize nominations are made by editors at independent publications, who alert the Pushcart editors, headed by Bill Henderson, to their choices. The selections are winnowed down to, in this year's case, 63 pieces. (By contrast, best American Short Stories chooses precisely twenty stories per year.) The list of contributing presses is many pages long, and includes both venerable old survivors like SF's very own ZYZZYVA, and new upstarts like the terrific A Public Space. Inclusion in the anthology IS the prize itself. There is no process of longlisting and shortlisting and declaring one person a winner, while the rest grit their teeth and pretend they were happy just to be nominated. If you're in, you won, and congratulations.
Bill Henderson's stirring and brief introduction to the new volume is enough to make you want to leap out of your boring little life and do something fabulous yet financially non-remunerative. "Money is the yellow brick road. Oligarchs pick our entertainments, our celebrities, our presidents, and our wars. We children of the spirit are yesterday's news, if we ever were news. Yet for three decades...[we] have flourished. The reason? (Simple, stupid.) Spirit will never be quelled, certainly not by mere bucks and bluster." Henderson goes on to eulogize the woman to whom this year's book is dedicated: one Hannah Turner. Up until her death this year at age 88, Turner penned a HAND-WRITTEN, calligraphed announcement for each and every Pushcart winner -- at least 20,000 over the course of several decades. "She did it for a pittance, tirelessly, and was adamant that we not change the nomination format to make it easier for her." Nobody loves a paying job as much as a dedicated amateur loves their avocation, and the loving dedication of the Pushcart organization, which still assembles its annual book through unpaid labors in a backyard shed, is a beautiful testament to this.
Plenty of Bay Area locals make appearances here, as usual. Rebecca Solnit's essay from Orion, "Winged Mercury and the Golden Calf," lays down all the ways the Gold Rush scarred, permanently, the Northern California landscape. Its most terrible legacy is all the mercury it left behind. This is something I never knew: mercury is used in large quantities in gold mining, and most of it escaped into our waterways: "Much of it is still there -- a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist once told me that he and his peers sometimes find globules the size of a man's fist in pristine-looking Sierra Nevada streams -- but the rest of it ended up lining the bottom of San Francisco Bay." It's enough to make you shudder.
The short story "Pampkin's Lament," by local and Stegner fellow Peter Orner, was pulled from The Mission's own McSweeney's for inclusion. It's a bittersweet story of a young boy watching his father, a campaign consultant, as he works for a losing Illinois gubernatorial candidate. "Pampkin got run over by a fez-wearing Shriner on a motorized flying carpet. The Shriner swore it was an accident, but this didn't stop the Waukegan News Sun from running the headline PAMPKIN SWEPT UNDER RUG." Its ending is suprising, sweet, and sad. Robert Olen Butler's "18 1/2," originally published in Zoetrope, is a hysterical re-imagining of the missing eighteen and a half minutes on one of Nixon's Watergate tapes. Nixon talks about Elvis, childhood poverty, why he wears his wingtips on the beach, and a late-night run-in with a certain drunk young man from the Texas Air National Guard.
A beautiful essay, "Fathead's Hard Times," by San Francisco resident W.S. Di Piero appears from Berkeley's Threepenny Review. In it, he describes how his deep love and appreciation of music have helped him handle the chronic pain of a crippling spinal condition. "While in the hospital and for a long time thereafter, at night I kept by my ear a transistor radio...So whenever the pain spiked me awake -- IT seemed deranged, because it migrated: now in my lower back, now knees, now upper legs -- I had sounds running into my ear that instead of being a balm or distraction laytered me more deeply into the pain, its rhythms and registers." Local legend Herbert Gold gets a Pushcart nod, as well, for his essay "A Genius of Grief: Memories of Saul Bellow." His description of life as a young man in postwar Paris, hanging out with Bellow in St-Germain-des-Pres, is enough to make you wish you had a time machine.
If I had to complain about the book at all, I'd say that it skews a bit on the safe side, and the old guard is far more heavily represented than the young. As far as I can tell, they only draw from print publications and not online ones (this is common: as far as I know, Best American Nonrequired Reading is the only major Best-of annual that regularly publishes internet-based work.) Pushcart's Advisory Council is chock-full of gray eminences like Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, and Gerald Stern.
The best thing about the book is how skillfully it's been curated. Solnit's gold-mining essay sits alongside a short story called "The Best Jeweler" by Clancy Martin, a tale of love and betrayal and macho behavior in a mall jewelry shop. Robert Olen Butler's whimsical take on Richard Nixon's inner life precedes a poem called "Skinny Dipping With Pat Nixon" by David Kirby, in which the poet discovers a latent carnal urge for the former first lady, now that he is the age that she was then. Like paintings in a museum, the pieces are set up in such a way that they complement and comment on one another.
Read the 32nd Annual Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses in order, start to finish, and you'll feel like you've been invited to the wittiest and most interesting cocktail party ever. And it's one that won't end anytime soon: Pushcart is a nonprofit entity, buffered from the cruel winds of commerce. Says Bill Henderson, "Our endowment insures that our non-profit project will endure despite the oligarchs. Our only overhead is that 8'x8' shack, and it's real sturdy."