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He's Not Heavy, He's My O. Henry Prize

Collection for '06 long on melancholy and gravitas

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Only the naive or foolish turn to literary fiction for a good time or a rollicking beach read. Literary fiction is many things, including one of the finest art forms going, but it is rarely amusing; there are other types of fiction for that sort of thing. Or, at least, that's the common theory in the literary world, which tends not to place a high value on humor or general light-heartedness.

This seems to be the guiding concept behind The 2006 O. Henry Prize Stories, a collection of 20 stories gathered from the nation's literary journals and magazines and given the O. Henry Prize, one of the more prestigious awards in the field. While there isn't a weak story in the bunch (there's a reason they're all prizewinners, folks), there isn't much to leaven the emotional weight and turmoil each of these pieces traffic in. A collection like this is best appreciated in fits and starts. Trying to devour the whole thing at once may lead to depression and a sudden urge to explore the inside of your gas oven.

To be fair, there are occasional flashes of wit to be enjoyed. Jackie Kay's "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay" views the breakup of a long-term relationship with mordant jags of humor, and David Means' "Sault Ste. Marie" takes gallows humor for a ride, examining the lives and decisions of three petty criminals as they blunder into crimes of a more felonious and darker nature. Of the lot, "Girls I Know" by Douglas Trevor comes closest to actually being funny, at least in the setup when we meet the story's protagonist, a perpetual grad student who supplements his income by making deposits at the sperm bank. It's a mark of Trevor's talent that he takes what could have been a character exercise in absurdity and invests him with pathos and dignity.

What saves the collection from truly spiraling into artsy-fartsy darkness is the adventurous nature of some of these stories. The O. Henry juries have always been a little more daring than their Best American or Pushcart counterparts--this is the literary award that Stephen King won in 1999, to give an infamous example--and some of the stories in this collection are daringly, satisfyingly weird. See a woman have a discussion with a headless person! (Stephanie Reents' "Disquisition on Tears;" as a bonus, it's set in Boise, likely because Reents is an Idaho native.) Thrill to a woman creating and eventually meeting her fate through a spirit guide! ("Wolves" by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, which is the best story in the collection, thanks to its spare, luminous prose and confidently paced narrative.) Marvel at the difficulties of living on the back of a big damn fish! ("Conceived" by David Lawrence Morse, which gets the award for weirdest premise.)

When all is said and done, the breathtaking skill on display here is worth a little angst on the part of readers. I wouldn't recommend it for a casual afternoon read, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a stronger collection of literary works in any library or bookstore this year. The 2006 O. Henry Prize Stories is well worth your time.