Keeping It Short and Sweet: Postcard From New York City

Doug Diesenhaus

The second annual Story Prize ceremony, held at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in late January, began like most literary events in New York City—with much chattering among publishing folk, rising in volume until the lights went down and a hush descended on the room. The evening’s format was simple. The three finalists, fiction writers Jim Harrison, Maureen F. McHugh, and Patrick O’Keefe, would each read from their books and then sit for a short discussion with Larry Dark. In 2004 Dark, the former O. Henry Prize Stories series editor, launched the prize with Julie Lindsey in an effort to promote a genre they believed was underrepresented by other literary awards. The winner of the first annual prize was Edwidge Danticat for The Dew Breaker (Knopf, 2004).

McHugh was the first to read to the half-filled room, with an excerpt from her short story “Ancestor Money,” from Mothers & Other Monsters (Small Beer Press). Featuring a lot of dialogue and a highly formal plot, the story also reflected her roots in speculative and science fiction. Her deceased, heaven-bound narrator must travel into the future to claim money left to her, according to Chinese custom, by her granddaughter. Reading in a straightforward and confident manner, McHugh ended with a tease: “If you want to know what China’s like for the dead, you’ll have to read [the rest of the story].”

Next was Patrick O’Keefe’s The Hill Road (Viking). Wearing a black jacket and a brilliant red shirt that would later match his victory blush, he read from “The Postman’s Cottage” in a quiet and unassuming tone mixed with the accent of his native Ireland. Set in the old-fashioned fictional Irish village of Kilroan, the story features a widowed narrator who, traveling by train to tell her son of her plans to remarry, meets the nephew of a former lover. A few steps behind the modernized world, Kilroan’s slow pace informs the lives of its residents and allows O’Keefe room to develop his characters’ complicated emotions.

Jim Harrison’s reading from The Summer He Didn’t Die (Atlantic Monthly Press) served as a sharp contrast to O’Keefe's. With wild hair and an open-collared shirt, Harrison evinced a swagger even as he set down his cane on a chair. “I don’t really need that in the country, but there’s something about having one eye that makes it hard to see curbs,” said Harrison, who lives in Arizona and Montana. He read from the beginning of each of the book’s three novellas, noting that takeoffs and landings are the most dangerous parts of flying—and, apparently, of writing. His reading featured many humorous moments, including his delivery of the following line, from the story “Republican Wives”: “Early in our marriage, Jack took Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ to heart.” Later, speaking to Dark of his recurring character “Brown Dog,” Harrison joked, “certain characters seize upon you, and they’re actually more alive than most people you know.”

The ceremony came to a close with cofounder Lindsey’s announcement of the winner. Noting that the eighty-two submissions included entries from John Barth, Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle, James Salter, and Christine Schutt, she named O’Keefe as the winner, to raucous applause and cheers. O’Keefe, who received $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl, appeared shocked. “I didn’t think this would happen,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”