Flash Fiction America

FLASH FICTION AMERICA : Charles Rammelkamp enthuses over a new anthology edited by James Thomas, Sherrie Flick and John Dufresne

Flash Fiction America
James Thomas, Sherrie Flick & John Dufresne (eds)
W.W. Norton and Company, 2023
ISBN: 978-0393358056
304 pp       $16.95 

Following 2015’s Flash Fiction International, the question that underlies Flash Fiction America, Sherrie Flick confesses in her Preface, is: “What is America?” The stories in this anthology take place all over the country. “I jumped into the San Antonio River once, for a hundred dollars,” Joy Castro begins her story about Iréne, a Mexican waitress who has recently given birth, her situation flashing through her mind just before she jumps. At a “jalopy bar” on the banks of the Colorado River, Guy No-Horse, a wheelchair-bound Indian, flirts with two white girls, and everything and nothing happens, in Natalie Diaz’s “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse.” Stephanie Frele’s “James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe” captures the moment a tired, irritable family suddenly coheres in Nevada, a story that begins ominously: “Stu is driving to South Lake Tahoe to take his postpartum-strained woman to the snow….” Meg Pokrass’s “Pounds Across America” takes place in Manhattan; an aspiring actress who auditions for parts during the day, works nights calling people who have ordered diet products from a TV infomercial. In Pamela Painter’s “The Kiss,” Mona, a woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reveals the secret of her tongue stud to people at a party, shares a kiss with one of them, and everything else follows. “The man she came with leaves first,” for one, and “My boyfriend leaves with me, but we go home separately,” the narrator tells us. “We all go home with something kissing on our tongue.” “The guy I’m dating in Ann Arbor is The One-Eyed Bat,” Yalitza Ferreras begins her story, “The One-Eyed Bat!” What animates these characters stitches the quilt that makes up America, from resentment to longing, frustration to satisfaction – from coast to coast. Michael Martone’s “Sketches of the School Staff in Winesburg, Indiana” is its own little quilt.

Not all of the stories actually take place in America, but they involve Americans nevertheless, fleshing out the national psyche. “She fucks a sailor, a Turkish sailor, the summer she spends in Istanbul,” Randa Jarrar begins “A Sailor,” about an American woman who taunts her husband with her infidelity and in doing so comes to an understanding of herself.

The seventy-three stories that make up this amazing collection come from a multiplicity of voices, male, female, Native, Hispanic, Muslim, Indian, Chinese, Black, White, etc. This is America. As James Thomas writes in his Afterword, Flash Fiction America is democratic, a “house with many small windows, but a door big enough to let everyone in.”

But the point of this collection is its genre – flash! The epigraph is Henri Poincaré’s reflection, “Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but the flash is everything.” In his Introduction, co-editor John Dufresne calls flash fiction “the art of omission.”

Take Robert Scotellaro’s “Nothing Is Ever One Thing.” The story begins with an airplane crash followed by a man missing his flight. Why? The paragraphs that follow explain just as they open up more questions. Dufresne also compares flash to dreams – lots of middle but maybe not so much beginning or end. “Nothing Is Ever One Thing” deliciously illustrates the comparison.

Emma Stough’s “Jenny Watches The Exorcist” is also curiously dream-like. The protagonist, a child, is insomniac. “Jenny remembers sleep like a matchstick remembers flame: quick and devastating.” A flash, indeed! Watching a movie can be like dreaming, after all. In her sleeplessness, Jenny ponders the movie, imagines a new ending for the possessed girl, Regan. Yet nothing is truly resolved, just as in dreams.

“If John is three, and John’s mother is six times his age, how old was John’s mother when John was conceived in the back of Al Neill’s pickup truck after a Styx concert in Milwaukee?” Amber Starks begins “The Logic of the Loaded Heart.” Starks tells the story of John’s sad life through math problems, riddles, which is what dreams often amount to, n’est-ce pas? We often wake up with the question, What did it mean? The story ends: “Who can say why the loaded heart defies all logic, like an unfinished word problem, like a riddle written in the human dust of a crowded barroom?”

There are so many great flash pieces in Flash Fiction America, it’s a shame not to be able focus a spotlight on every one of them. Joshunda Sanders’s “Rhythm” entices us with “Sunup to sundown, a hundred shades of Black girl beauty.” Francine Witte’s “Radio Water,” which involves a bigamist father, a self-deluding mother and a little brother who disappears into a new life, concludes with dream-like inconclusiveness, the mother looking out at the boats in the lake where they are living. “The boats that maybe even only looked like boats.” Jennifer Wortman begins her story “Willing,” with the provocative line, “One of the men I love is pointing a gun – stainless steel, ecru handle – at his temple, and I tell him I’ll do anything if he puts down that gun. This is the man I’m not leaving my husband for.” Try not to go on reading!

James Thomas tells the story of the origin of the term, flash fiction, which happened during a freak winter storm in Ohio in the 1990’s. These stories in Flash Fiction America pop and sizzle like lightning. There is an abundance of electricity and magnetism between the covers of this marvelous book.