Every year, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction grants two writers a gift: Each receives a $1000 prize and publication of a collection of short stories. Peter Selgin and Andrew Porter won the prize in 2008.
The resulting collection from Selgin, called Drowning Lessons, came out in October. He's an adept writer. His sentences shine; They are attractive and polished. He has a remarkable ability to create very different, but always compelling voices. In a couple of the stories his characters make light of the authorial tendency to use far-fetched similes -- to say that eyes are like "the sky...or like diamonds or stars or any of the other dumb things writers are always saying they're like" -- but Selgin is good at this. When he says lake water in November is "like frozen razor blades," I believe him.
The stories in this collection are stories of people desperate for something. The characters grasp for one another, but their gestures never convey what they mean and only drive thicker wedges between themselves. They seem often not to be in control of their actions, or at least to be unconscious of the consequences. Sex and lust are especially fraught with peril, making bad situations worse and introducing innumerable new complications.
The title of the collection -- "drowning lessons" -- might be understood, then, as meaning that the stories are lessons in how a reader might drown herself or at least shoot herself in the foot.
Unfortunately, about half of the stories failed to stick. They were neatly assembled, carefully thought out, and nice to read, but after finishing the last words, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. The other half of the stories, though, linger. They stirred up a feeling in me, made me see something I would not otherwise have seen, or caused me to understand something in a new way. When a teenager finds his father slumped dead against the toilet Selgin writes, "I held him, the fingers of his hand in mine stained with powdered metal and nicotine. I smelled his earth-soaked mustiness, the tobacco of his hugs and kisses, the unwashed, vegetable-bin/bourbon odor of his flesh. His cancer soaked into my skin." That stuck with me.
It's easy to understand why Andrew Porter won the Flannery O'Connor Award: He deserves it. The stories in his collection The Theory of Light and Matter are exceptional.
In truth, most of the stories are about relatively banal things: a marriage dissolving, the death of a friend in childhood, an absent father, a childless marriage. These things are a part of life. Porter's talent is in the telling. He makes the stories engaging, creates them as something living, and conjures up feeling and empathy.
For all the ways that these events are common, they significantly affect the lives of the characters. Most of the stories are told in retrospect, with years having passed in the characters' lives. They reminisce about the event, reevaluating it and still, after all this time, trying to make sense of it. They have neither moved on, nor forgotten: The stories are told with emotional immediacy.
In the two-page story "Skin," the narrator hearkens back to that moment before everything went wrong, when he and his new wife were falling "asleep together on our small mattress, as we do every night, listening to the wind in the palm trees outside our window, believing in our thick dreams that we are capable of nothing cruel."
Underlying most of the stories, and motivating the characters' choices is the fear of being "not right," of violating suburbia's social mores. Yet when they tell their stories now, looking back, questions still linger: What if I had dared? What if I had not picked the acceptable partner and had lived instead with the much older man whom I loved? What if I had sent the letter? What if I had brought my Amish girlfriend home to my parents?
This sense of lingering doubt, buried deep inside the characters, is at the center of these stories. "It is the part of me that can destroy as easily as it loves. It is the part of me that feels safest and most at home behind closed doors, in a dark bedroom, that believes that the only truth lies in the secrets we keep from each other."