It's a conversation worthy of Quentin Tarantino, an otherworldly dialogue arc of impending violence and twisted menace that hooks the reader with outrageous glee. Two men sit in a Cajun restaurant discussing the proposed assassination of a chimp. One man is attempting to contract the other to kill his daughter's monkey. So goes the opening sequence of "Big Slick's New Job," an excerpt from Chris Offutt's novel Hit Monkey, and just one of the many highlights of the 2009 incarnation of The Idaho Review.
Boise State's lauded literary journal celebrates its 10th anniversary with a 296-page issue featuring a dozen award-winning short story writers like Rick Bass, Stuart Dybek and Carolyn Cooke; expansive poetry contributions by Michael Waters, Lawrence Raab and Debora Greger; and numerous heartfelt tributes to the late W.W. Norton & Company editor, Carol Houck Smith. Also included are a chapbook by Joseph Millar and illustrated fiction by Pinckney Benedict.
Mitch Wieland, a Boise State professor and author of the recently released God's Dog: A Novel in Stories, has edited the journal since its inception and during the past decade has changed the landscape of the Idaho literary scene. Alan Heathcock, winner of the National Magazine Award in Fiction and Boise State adjunct faculty member, who has served as an editor on the publication, feels that having the journal on campus reinforces the fact that quality isn't something that only happens somewhere else.
"The success of The Idaho Review is all Mitch Wieland," Heathcock said. "Every journal in the country is writing letters to big name writers, asking them to send work. Mitch has some special charm that when he asks Rick Bass, William Kittredge or Ann Beattie, they not only send work, but they send great work. Ten years ago, Boise State didn't even have a writing program, and now is known nationwide largely because of the reach and reputation of The Idaho Review."
From the inaugural issue of the magazine in 1998, which featured the work of such luminaries as Ann Beattie, Richard Bausch and Robert Olmstead, The Idaho Review has set a high standard for content. Acclaimed local author Anthony Doerr--who is Idaho's writer in residence--had his own short story, "The Weatherman," published in The Idaho Review in 2002. Doerr is impressed with the magazine for a number of reasons.
"It's got a simple, clean style," Doerr explained. "It also has a sparkling group of contributors and an astonishing pedigree of prizes for such a small-circulation journal. All this is a product of its editor. Mitch has the diligence and willingness to both recruit established writers and cultivate emerging ones."
Brookline, Mass.-based Edith Pearlman, a distinguished writer whose more than 150 published short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Stories collection and the Pushcart Prize collection, makes her third appearance in the latest issue of The Idaho Review.
"The Idaho Review publishes stories that differ widely in style, in genre, in intent--but [all] are uniformly excellent," Pearlman said. "I was honored to become one of its contributors, and when I came to Boise to give a reading, I was treated royally by everyone on the staff of the magazine. Mitch is one of those rare editors who doesn't fiddle with a story once he's accepted it, and I appreciate his gallantry."
The national recognition The Idaho Review has garnered in its relatively short existence is indeed heady stuff. Each year, 20 short stories are selected from across the nation to be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection. University journals, both large and small, must compete with long-established periodicals like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Esquire for those scarce and elusive slots. In the 2003 edition of the O. Henry Prize Stories, two of the 20 entries, "Kissing" by William Kittredge and "Bleed Blue in Indonesia" by Adam Desnoyers, were reprinted from the 2002 issue of The Idaho Review.
"The short story by Adam Desnoyers was actually discovered in the slush pile by two graduate students," Wieland recounted. "When I called to tell him we were accepting his story, he told me he'd been rejected by over 50 literary journals, and that this was his first acceptance. The fact that he went from the slush pile to such an honor is amazing."
Rejection is a harsh reality for a majority of writers in America, and staring at the piles of submitted manuscripts in the small offices of The Idaho Review on campus in the English Annex, it's not difficult to calculate the odds against making it into print. Part of the process of creating the journal involves a Boise State class aptly titled The Idaho Review. During a recent visit, nine students sat around a long table reading through piles of manuscripts. They labored in pairs, seeking work worthy of passing on to the next editorial level. Assistant Editor Matt Crosby, sometimes referred to as "The Captain of the Slush Pile," sits at the head of the table overseeing the proceedings.
"You'd be surprised how bad most of the stuff we get turns out to be," Crosby says with a weary expression. "We're not looking for work that is merely good. We only want the great stuff. But we honor everything submitted to us with a read."
Reggie Townley, an MFA candidate and member of the student editorial staff, is well seasoned in plowing through envelopes stuffed with prose and poetry. "Sometimes I'll put something in the 'No' pile," he said, "but then an image sticks in my head, and I'll go back for another look and change my mind."
When the class, which is comprised of mostly young writers and poets, is asked if they have any problems passing judgment on their fellow writers, Breonna Krafft, a third-year MFA candidate, shrugged her tattooed shoulders. "Most of us at this table are sending out our own work to other journals," she said. "Other people are looking at our stuff in the same way. So I don't feel bad about rejecting someone."
Brady Udall, a Boise State professor and author of the best-selling novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, is currently the fiction editor for the The Idaho Review. But he was aware of the publication long before he arrived in Boise to teach. "When I first got here, I didn't know the history of how Mitch had started this journal from scratch and turned it into such a powerhouse," Udall said. "I only knew that they published great writing. After spending three years here, I've come to discover what an amazing feat Mitch has pulled off. Single-handedly, he has created one of the most important literary journals in the country."
Wieland is pleased with the work The Idaho Review has produced and is grateful for the support he has been given.
"Looking back over the past 10 years, I'm very proud of the over 150 stories we've gotten into print," he offered. "While other universities are cutting their budgets for their literary magazines, the administration here at [Boise State] has actually increased our funding in support of what we do."
On Friday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m., Mitch Wieland will read from and sign his new book God's Dog: A Novel in Stories at Rediscovered Bookshop, 7079 Overland Road, 208-376-4229, rediscoveredbookshop.com.