Coolest American Stories 2023 Edited by Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey

Coolest Stories Press

Review by Jack Smith

Coolest American Stories 2023 is the second in a series of anthologized short stories, edited by Mark Wish and Elizabeth Coffey.  In numerous respects, the stories in this volume are exemplars of the finest short story craft in contemporary literature.  A short story is a small world, compared to a novel.  These are small worlds, small but complete.  We owe it to Wish and Coffey for this volume, which helps keep the short story alive, celebrating its compressed form as well as its depth and range.

            The opening story, “Meet and Greet,” by Georgia Smith, gets the collection off to a rollicking start. It deals with a zealous fan of a movie star, one Daniel Fitzpatrick, famous for his part in Shadowland. Her fanatic devotion to this celebrity might remind one of Annie Wilkes’s obsessive, deranged interest in author Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery, though it isn’t couched in the horror that occurs in that novel.  Even so, the fan does exhibit a sinister—and dangerous—side when she crushes up her hydrocodone pills and pours the powder in Fitzpatrick’s drink.  She soon gets him off to herself, in the Hilton. He ends up on the floor, next to the toilet. It’s a very edgy meet and greet—and, for readers, because of this fascinating protagonist, it’s a riveting meet and greet to this fine collection.

            Morgan Talty’s “A Thin Line Rises” is a quite different story, also strong on character, in this case both protagonist and secondary character. The protagonist of this story is saddled with what he feels is an obligation to see about his father, who, for the most part, is bound to his recliner in a boarding home.  He’s hooked up to oxygen, yet is a constant smoker. He has sores on his legs which look like “burned flesh.”  He survives on yogurt and Pepsi. Years later, the aging protagonist recalls how it was always cold in that room, even in the summers, with the air conditioner constantly running. His father seldom left the room, unless he was at the wound care clinic or at the casino. He was a very difficult man. He seemed to take no interest in his son, only in his son’s fiancée.  In this gripping story, Talty creates a compelling protagonist as well as secondary character, two characters we’re not likely to forget.

            An unusual story, quirky in a comic way, but decidedly edgy, is “Practice” by Alex Pickett. The coach of a freshman football team is disturbed by one player’s inability, it seems, to snap the ball “‘on two.’” The coach is bent on remedying this particular mess-up. The players are used to the coach’s rule about turning in their cell phones, prior to practice, to a large canvas bag. This gives the coach an idea, and he threatens to send a text from any errant player, saying whatever he wants and to whoever he wants.  He soon carries out his threat. He types, “‘Dad, I love you.’” Then he hits send. This causes the young man’s father to wonder and worry.  When this player jumps early again, the coach writes another text with the player’s phone stating that he’d lied when explaining that untoward text message: the coach hadn’t sent the previous text—he had. The coach, the text reads, “is a good guy,” and he “shouldn’t have put the blame on him.’” In spite of the coach’s defense of this particular “practice,” the reader knows that such a punishment isn’t healthy and could go seriously awry.   Pickett’s story is an object lesson in discipline of subordinates run seriously amok.

            Nancy J. Fagan’s “The Brick” puts a different spin on the issue of control.  In this case, the protagonist, Mrs. Cutler, suddenly is given charge of her grandson, Jazzie, whose druggie parents have left him homeless.  Mrs. Cutler is the only real option for a care giver, she’s told by social services. To compound the problem, Jazzie doesn’t speak, doesn’t communicate with her. She knows it’s wrong to try to control him—much better to allow him to communicate on his own. The only thing he seems to bond with is a yellow Lego brick. Mrs. Cutler recalls how difficult her own son, Ben, was at that age, and Jazzie is quick to throw temper tantrums like Ben did as a child. The burden Mrs. Cutler carries as grandmother is totally unexpected. She’s ultimately given a choice: adopt Jazzie or give him up to a young couple who have now surfaced. The story ends on Jazzie’s first word: “Yellow.”  Apparently her careful avoidance of an effort to control him has paid off. It’s a story that is quite poignant. 

            The closing story to this anthology, “A Mother’s Last Request,” by R.C. Goodwin, mixes light comedy with tragedy. The protagonist, Claudia, undergoes her mother’s tragic death by non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma. Her mother’s death takes its toll on her daughter, especially her deathbed request that Claudia, who has declared herself a lesbian, have sex at least once with a man. Claudia’s search for the right man to perform the task becomes a comic quest, especially given the witty remarks of this protagonist. It’s a story that handles sexual orientation in a clever way.  It’s a great finale to this collection.

            The range is wide here.  In one case, a character sees auras and can judge the person she’s come into contact with. In another story, a married couple just might create a website filming their sexual intercourse—because it’s a money-maker, they’re told. In another, a young girl is urged to cut her hair, which will upset her parents but please her friend—and possibly herself. These stories are all in the realistic vein. They’re about life as we either live it or hear about it or read about it. It’s an anthology of very real characters in very real situations The conflicts they face are dramatized in ways that pull us in and hook us to want to read on.