AFTER CENTURIES OF immigrants streaming into the U.S., something cultural is at last splashing out into the mainstream. What does it resemble? The same streams that entered, as it turns out, but with some uniquely American sediment.
Amy Tan's splendid selection of Best American Short Stories of 1999 comprises one cosmopolitan American current. Settings are as diverse as Katmandu from the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Canadian north woods from a kindergarten in rural China. The diversity's in the details, too: You have your talking John Deere, your deep-fried luchis, your Swami.
The stories are culturally varied, with universal themes: adultery, generational relations, isolation, dying, revenge, oppression. But the perspective is unfailingly American.
Amy Tan (author of Joy Luck Club) reveals her enduring interest here, with more than a half-dozen stories involving telescoped family histories. Annie Proulx scratches a memorable family portrait in "The Bunchgrass End of the World," an examination of life on the geographical and emotional edge of society. Life lurches on in comfortable dysfunction until daughter Ottaline encounters the talking tractor.
Less imaginative, though more affecting, is the fate of the daughter in Sheila Kohler's "Africans." Opening with the line, "Mother preferred Zulu servants," it chronicles the life of a woman unfortunate enough to get what she wished for, which reveals a different take on Zulu loyalty.
An actress-grandmother gets to play an unscripted role with her grandchildren and a crew of Oates-like characters in Alice Munroe's deliciously creepy "Save the Reaper"; but also Tan gives us Chitra Divakaruni's restrained "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," in which the protagonist contemplates her grandchildren and her new life in Los Angeles. Her story evolves from a language (Bengali) in which there's no word for "privacy," and a country where you could "stare out the window for hours and not see one living soul."
But there's more to Best than family relations. Junot Diaz's very likable bad boy does penance for his indiscretion in "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars," a hopeful journey of redemption and revelation that finds this bumbling Romeo traveling with his girlfriend from New Jersey to his native, transforming, Santo Domingo.
There's nothing particularly innovative or startling about this fin de siècle writing. With minor exception, the narrative structure is traditional: chronologically arranged, with clear flashbacks. Sentences don't call attention to themselves, but rather develop plot and character. What is striking--and promising for the future of the American short story form--is the richness of character, setting and voice. It reminds that the foundation of vibrant storytelling is content; and Tan's cross-cultural collection affirms that the American short story continues to surprise, in its scope if not its form.