Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories, edited by Christine Perkins-Hazuka, Tom Hazuka, and Mark Budman
(Persea Books, June 2011)
Reviewed by Sharon Harrigan
The editors of this new anthology are experts in the exponentially expanding art of flash. Mark Budman is the publisher of Vestal Review, one of the best-known literary journals of its kind, and Tom Hazuka has co-edited four anthologies of short fiction.
The 65 authors in this collection—from well-known writers to those making their debut—interpret the short-short form and the coming-of-age theme in almost 65 different ways. All of the stories are short (less than 1,000 words), but some are as long as three and a half pages, and others run only half a page. Raphael Dagold’s “The Two Rats and the BB Gun” is of the shortest variety; an homage to Aesop’s Fables, it even includes a moral at the end. Steve Almond’s “Stop”—one of my favorites—is also a scant half page and is as distilled as a prose poem. Its title refers to the rest stop where “you” (a teenager girl) work the register at Roy Rogers. Stop is also a command. The title balances perfectly with the last word of the story, its opposite: persist. The girl at Roy Rogers doesn’t stop smiling, remembering, being kind and polite, doing her job. She doesn’t stop her life just because her best friend died in an accident down the road. She persists in hoping: “this could be love, this clean violence, the meaty shavings and steel beneath.”
It is difficult to effect a transformation in a couple of pages, but most of the stories do, and none better than Alice Walker’s “Flowers.” A little girl skips from hen house to pig pen, thinking “the days had never been as beautiful as these.” In the woods she stumbles onto a dead man, stepping “smack into his eyes.” Then she sees “the rotted remains of a noose” and “the summer was over.” This is a fine example of a complete story arc in compact form.
Some of the stories end with a punch line. For instance, Stuart Dybek’s “Confession” recounts the young narrator’s habit of saving his “deadly sins for last,” after the priest has fallen asleep from the excruciating monotony of the boy’s catalog of petty indiscretions. For penance, the priest says, “Go in peace, my son, I’m suffering enough today for both of us.”
The funniest story is Ron Carlson’s “Homeschool Insider: The Fighting Pterodactyls.” It is a satire about home-schooled children desperately trying to create a real-school experience—with teams, mascots (the fighting pterodactyls), and even detention (not being able to leave the kitchen table all day). What makes it so fresh is its earnest good humor and childlike language. Who can resist a narrator who talks like this? “I asked Joylene what our school colors were and she said, green and green, after our Plymouth and the color of our fridge, which is avocado, another spelling word.” At the homeschool prom, they “just turned on American Idol and Joylene cried quietly for a while which was kind of like the prom anyway.”
Though small in stature, many of the stories are big in theme. In Julia Alvarez’s “Snow,” the narrator, a recent immigrant from Cuba, sees “a flurry” of “dusty fallout that would kill us.” Elizabeth Erlich’s “Friday Night” follows a girl from the suburbs who spends the night with a friend in Manhattan shortly after the World Trade Center attack, passing posters labeled “missing” and “hero.” It is “the most important night of [her] life so far” because she loses her innocence. She also loses something from her pocket and the story ends: “please find all the missing people and my phone.” The intersection of these two losses explodes the story with meaning.
A few of the stories were previously published in magazines or other collections, and at least one is an excerpt from a published novel. But most were written for this anthology and are not available elsewhere. The Ron Carlson story is in that category, and its delightful wit and heart are worth the price of the book.