by Editor Ryan Smith
“I can’t live in water and you can’t live on land, but we can stay here at the edges.”
Because when you’ve been shipwrecked—all vestiges of your past washed away in that briny, half-frozen omnipresence—and you inhabit an island with a one-armed widower, an incestuous captain, and an aged mermaid with whom you’ve fallen madly in love, what else is there to do but compromise.
Ramona Ausubel’s story “Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender,” in the Oxford American’s summer 2015 fiction issue is a totem to the magazine’s balancing act between past and future. The act’s performed, not without prodigious struggle, by an ensemble of characters, replete with visceral life experience. Damaged individuals wander about each of the edition’s ten short stories seeking whatever, often finding something else.
The analogue is palpable. Esa is a castaway, the land over his shoulder representative of a past he can hardly place himself in, and his future billowing before him in waves of discontented death. Yet on the shore, where the past and present meet, the mermaid offers him something: respite, comfort, or perhaps a moment of truth and solace.
Readers will find themselves rooting for the mermaid to love back, for this miraculous present to envelope a soul forgotten by man and heaven alike. Ausubel’s prose is deft, viciously cutting through platitudes that characterize the shipwreck genre.
Just pages and worlds away, in Micah Stack’s “The G.RI.E.F.,” Mr. Stillz—whose rise and snaky decline from mainstream gangsta rap stardom echo New Orleans rapper Lil’ Wayne’s career—fights his desire to have a homoerotic relationship with his adoptive father and music producer Tyrone.
This issue has something for both ends of the spectrum, and all of the beautifully corrupt points in between.
Mr. Stillz lingers in his past, unable to escape the blunts, sizzurp, and homophobia that slowly choke the life force from him. After a picture surfaces of Tyrone and him kissing, he goes off the handle, dissing publicly the man he over and over again embraced in private love. And all to affirm his straightness and a future that dismisses the exploding throb of every instant they shared.
Societal expectations hold Stack’s rapping wunderkind in a perpetually suspended past, a single flame lost to the world’s monomaniacal consciousness. Unable to find his mermaid, we watch as Mr. Stillz becomes an embodiment of his moniker, G.R.I.E.F. We could reach to console him, but the man Stack has created would only shrug you off, quickly “throw[ing] in that ‘no homo’ so you know that I ain’t gay…”
Antonya Nelson’s “Making Love” gives us an equally conflicted battleground in the form of Angela. We bounce around inside the relapsed alcoholic’s head, her thoughts bordering on the withering contempt of a boozer who’s seen it all and the softness of one rediscovering affection.
She lies in bed with a one-night-stander in the decrepit house she grew up in, her life in shambles much like this former grand estate, “languishing in a neighborhood that would raze it when the time came.”
Nelson constructs a past of monumental self-hate and organically lends Angela the opportunity to pull herself from destruction. The decision for a future though, as always, must be made in the present.
The magazine also includes works by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Christine Schutt, as well as a memorable introduction by guest editor Jamie Quatro on the exchange of details between writer and reader.
Pick up the Oxford American’s latest fiction issue if you have a hankering for some great stories that test characters’ ability to cut out a present from their disappointments and dreams and “come upon something real.”