Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Wet Wool, Warm Whiskey, and a Cold Church

I trekked to the bookstore a couple days before Thanksgiving to pick up a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2007. For the uninitiated, The Best American Short Stories series is an annual publication compiled by a guest editor. The selection process is subjective but comprehensive: The series editor spends the year digging through hundreds of American and Canadian literary journals in search of the best short stories of the year. Then a guest editor whittles down the series editor's selections into a manageable size. The 2007 edition, for example, features twenty stories and contains about four-hundred pages of delight. Well anyway, I went to the bookstore to satisfy a two-year addiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by three Maine connections in this year's edition.

The most prominent Mainer related to the Best Short Stories connection is the 2007 edition's guest editor, Stephen King. In his introduction he sounds a dour note about the lack of interest in the short story today, but boasts that he read "plenty of kick-ass stories this year," and that there wasn't a story included in this year's edition that didn't make him "want to crow 'Oh man, you gotta read this!'" Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who lives in Camden, was among the featured writers and mined familiar territory with a story about a self-reflective literature professor. The most intriguing Maine contributor, though, is the late Beverly Jensen.

According to a biographical note Jensen, grew up in Westbrook, but died from pancreatic cancer in New York in 2003 at the age of forty-nine. Inspired by a real event taking place during a brutal nor'easter in 1956, Jensen's "Wake" was initially published posthumously in New England Review before being picked up by Stephen King and Co.

The story opens on a train platform in Boston when a brother and sister have just learned they've misplaced their father's coffin (stuffed with his corpse) on the train ride to Boston from Connecticut. And what follows is a hairy early-morning drive through Maine to New Brunswick, Canada where extended family and friends are awaiting the body for his wake. Jensen's writing is so vivid, the reader will feel the scratch of a wool jacket, the warm whiskey in the bellies of the gathered mourners, and the starkness of a cold church amid a January blizzard. Hmmm, sounds like a good story to read right about now.

I sincerely hope a collection of Beverly Jensen's other work is published in the future.

- John C.L. Morgan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

looks like NER will publish another story of hers next year