cover image 2004 PUSHCART PRIZE XXVIII: Best of the Small Presses

2004 PUSHCART PRIZE XXVIII: Best of the Small Presses

, . . Pushcart, $35 (607pp) ISBN 978-1-888889-36-9

The Pushcart Prize spotlights small magazines, the genome of our literary culture. While Partisan Review folded this year, independents such as Threepenny Review , Zoetrope and Tin House (the latter two founded in the '90s) are flourishing. Editor Henderson errs on the side of excess: there are 61 contributions in fiction, essay and poetry. In nonfiction, there are strong personal essays, like Myra Jehlen's "F.P.," the memoir of a friend, which deals with the gruesome last rites of death (dressing the corpse, wheeling the coffin into the crematory, etc.) with an aplomb that habitués of Six Feet Under will appreciate. Rachel Cohen's "Lost Cities," a meditation on two poet/clerks—Pessoa and Cavafy—raises the topic of fame's various scales, and the inspiration of the routine. 2003 might have been a year of war ("The big wars are over/but the small ones never end," as Dorothy Barresi's "Poem to Some of My Recent Purchases" sadly puts it), but the majority of this fiction is still very domestic. However, three stories do address terrorism: "At Five in the Afternoon" by George Steiner (about narco-traffickers), which is too wordy; Paul West's "Idlewild" (about the aftermath of 9/11), which is too oblique; and Ben Fountain III's "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," which sets in motion fresher ironies. John Blair, an ornithology grad student, is kidnapped by a Colombian leftist group that, to his dismay, sells out. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that there are few comic stories. An exception is Joan Connor's blackly humorous "What It Is," in which Connor throws a bucket of ice-cold prose over the disastrous tryst of two middle-aged lovers. Hopefully, these selections will tempt readers to go out and sample American small magazines themselves. (Jan.)