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Thom Jones

Introduction

Being asked to be the sole judge of a fiction contest is an honor that carries with it heavy responsibilities. I recognize that my own tastes in literature can often be arcane and run against the grain of universal reason. Yet having taught writing and having been through numerous workshops I am aware of a kind of consensus readers will make in such groups much like a jury of twelve in a court case. I have myself found myself at the mercy of known and unknown judges, have savored the triumph of victory and tasted the bile of humiliation and bitter defeat. As a general rule I have reviled and hated every reader who has not found timeless perfection in my attempts at prose. I have spent long nights plotting revenge and by day continue to nourish lifelong hatred for those foolish and inane dunderheads who have failed to recognize my greatness, who were unmoved by it, did not marvel at it and who could not in all sincerity lavish my stories with the glorious praise they so richly deserve.

As I read the thirty-one finalists in the 1998 Blip Magazine Archive fiction contest, it dawned on me that after the winners were announced, writers whose own genius I did not recognize would devise gruesome tortures to inflict upon me once they tracked me down and in their ire murdered me outright. Let me just say this: I have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery, entered the FBI relocation program and have taken measures to make myself scarce. Thomas Pynchon—hell, he'll be easy to find compared to me. One thing, I am still unused to my new toupee and hope that in time it won't feel so dagblastedly hot. The ravages of time have weathered my face, and I'm not so sure the young Ringo Starr look suits me. Anyhow, if someone takes a notion and does decide to kill me: they would be doing me a big favor, okay? Enough.

My method for choosing a winner involved giving each of the thirty-one final manuscripts a quick read after which I placed each story in a "yes," "maybe" or "no" pile. After the first read-through I had only "yeses" and "maybes" as I found virtues in all of the stories. Most of the "maybes" I felt were only a rewrite away from becoming "yeses." This is the genius of charging a contest entry fee. You don't find a lot of first drafts.

Also, rewriting is the author's responsibility. "Maybes" became "nos" on the second reading. And many of the "yeses" began to stand out in bold relief as favorites. Then, considering the ten-dollar entry fee and the intentions of the writers, I became overwrought with a compulsion to be as fair as possible and in doing so I became as indecisive as Hamlet. I had to reread and reread to get through that phase. I looked through my "no" pile again. I became more convinced that I was seeing things objectively and felt many juries of twelve would make a similar conclusion.

I became more and more confident that I could defend my hierarchy of winners on artistic grounds.

By now, most people reading this introduction must be wondering why I have so thoroughly succeeded in drawing more attention to myself than to the winners who so richly deserve to be praised. My logic goes like this: second place never feels as good as third and so on. While I feel all of the finalists have won in a sense, it would be impossible to explain that to the person assigned a number low on the list. I can only offer my heartfelt congratulations to all of the entrants and hope that everyone will keep on writing in spite of my bungling involvement. I did the best I could.

I assigned first place to Curtis Sittenfeld's brilliant story "1993-94." The piece charmed me from the beginning. I was immediately drawn into Sittenfeld's world and lost all sense of self-awareness, even upon subsequent rereadings. For me the story worked well on several levels, and I very much wanted to know if the protagonist, a woman graduate from Swarthmore College, could overcome the considerable handicap of fat ankles and lose her virginity. Beyond that, could she find happiness? Sittenfeld is never sentimental and her insights are droll and sharp; the world she creates is richly depicted, and the story, set in Boston, is very modern in feel. The story gave me enormous pleasure; I found it held up upon successive readings, a test few can withstand.

Incigul Sayman's "Accumulation in Ypsilanti, Michigan" was compelling and wonderful. The narrator is a young woman who becomes obsessed with a twenty-five-year-old man that she runs over with her automobile as he bicycles past the local Kroger's supermarket. The victim, an attractive man named Philip, is puzzled by the narrator's curious attempts to make amends and eventually leaves town only to find her following him for no clear reason. "Accumulation," the narrator tells her mother, has to do with "getting things you need for the future." It's a wonderful short story.

In J. P. Jones's story "Among the Dead" we find a narrator obsessed with the historical youth of Joseph Stalin. It is a story that takes the narrator to the small village of Gori in what was once Soviet Georgia, Stalin's birthplace. Jones punctuates the story with footnotes from Serial Killers: The Growing Menace by Joel Norris and it becomes impossible finally to disassociate the ultimate genocide committed by Stalin from the diagnostic information provided by the footnotes. The way the author interweaves these threads with the action of the story makes for a powerful effect.

Ann Bronston's "Eskimo Nights" is a story about familial betrayal merely twenty pages long yet with the density and convolutions of a short novel. It is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's The Artificial Nigger and is a beautiful piece of writing.

Ad Hudler's story "Carry-on Baggage" is the tale of a woman trying to make her way to Costa Rica to dispose of her husband's ashes. He was delivering a van filled with Girl Scout cookies when he was killed in a highway collision involving a bread truck. The author writes with the ironical humor and understated pathos Charles Portis used in his classic, Norwood. This is a story that begs to go the full distance of a novel—at least for this reader.

"Animal Control" by Devon Jackson is the story of a professional football player who finds work as a dogcatcher after his sporting career quickly dissolves in addition to his most important human relationships. His hopes die as quickly as the trusting dogs he must put to sleep each week. Jackson's line-by-line writing is excellent, and "Animal Control" is a perfectly wrought story.

"Dime Box" by Kyle Jarrard is the name of a downbeat saloon where the story's main characters hang out discussing the identity and whereabouts of a local child killer that has been on a murderous rampage. As in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the reader can anticipate more than just a little trouble. It is a story foreboding with terror.

Traci Sobocinski's "Disco Lemonade" is a hard-luck story told with deftness and self-assurance. Her voice like those in most of these stories is strong, original and distinctive and the story is a hoot.

"Roswell" by David Ryan, along with "Dime Box," is the only other story on my list told in the third-person omniscient voice. I will quote the lead to illustrate why I feel a short story is such a difficult form to master. Picture the reader in a dental office or a waiting room surrounded by ceaseless activity, waiting to be summoned into a difficult confrontation of some sort. He is thumbing through a magazine. His eyes fall upon a short story. Your short story. It's almost as if the reader challenges the author to make the least mistake so he can turn the page and scan for cartoons or advertisements touting the amazing powers of pheromones that can be added to one's aftershave. A misstep is forgivable only after the hook has been swallowed and then only if the general tone of the writing is all-powerful. From David Ryan, I quote: "He kept a yellowed copy of the Roswell Daily Record on its most famous day, when all he was was a child with a jar of snakes in his hand, watching the ball of fire fly down from the sky. From the day when he ran to within a few feet of the smoke, over in the Bennets' pasture, and it was still sparking off into the air like fuses blowing. Roy counted five of them, and some parts. It could have been a plane crash. He was pretty sure that it was, but it was hard to tell. Three bodies were still inside. One had been thrown out against a cactus." Pretty good, huh? Betcha you want to find out what happens next, doncha? Thrown against a cactus. That was the best part, the part I liked best. And this is just the man's lead. It gets better.

—T. J.

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