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Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Short Stories'

Staying awake long enough on a Friday night to get any reading done gets to be more of a challenge as the school year proceeds, but I managed to start this weekend with Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched, the first entry in this year's edition of Best American Short Stories.

Steve Almond wrote an intense, tightly plotted story about a loser shrink who just doesn't get it and an angry patient who knows when to hold 'em. The title refers to poker players that are easily picked apart by pro players, and, of course it applies to what the two main characters think they are doing to each other.

It's easy to focus on the tightly constructed plot. It's one of those that is almost too perfect in its back and forth pacing in terms of not just the action, but the fortunes and motivations of the two characters. At times I waver between deciding whether the doctor is the main character or if he genuinely shares full billing with his patient.

But concentrating on the plot means overshadowing some of Almond's finer work. Early on, the doctor's wife discovers that he has been playing poker in a third-rate casino rather than getting real exercise. When he comes home, she's got on the green eyeshade and ready to deal. This line from that scene is the kind of writing that won me over to appreciating Almond:

"But she saw his Duplicity and raised her Forgiveness."

There's more than one way to take that sentence. And that's how to say a lot without wasting words.

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