Since The Paris Review was founded in 1953, it’s published young unknowns including Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, and David Foster Wallace. The Unprofessionals is the magazine’s first anthology of new writing in 50 years. Though the book features contributions from a few well-known figures—Ben Lerner, Kevin Young, Zadie Smith—most names will be unfamiliar to most readers. Lorin Stein spoke to me by phone.
Lorin Stein: The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.
These three qualities are crystallized in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which first appeared in The Paris Review in 1989. For most of my grownup life I was a book editor. Novels were what interested me. When I thought of short stories, I thought—unfairly—of gray, melancholy, slightly boring, anxiety-producing little intrusions on the day. But then there were stories like “Car Crash.” It has a purity, a lack of machinery, that makes you believe it—the way you’d never believe a novel—from start to finish. I love the idea of finding new writers who could do that. That’s why I took a break from editing novels five years ago and went to work for The Review—a magazine devoted to short fiction
“Car Crash” is recollected by a man who used to be a vagrant and drug addict. One rainy night, he tells us, he was hitchhiking along a road somewhere, and was picked up by a family—parents and two kids. He claims he knew beforehand that this family would be in an accident. He has a premonition. And yet he gets in the car anyway, and doesn’t warn them that something terrible is going to happen.
He doesn’t care. He falls asleep in their car. And sure enough, he’s jolted awake into a horrifying scene: They’ve broadsided another driver, killing him. The narrator is fine, but the husband is only half conscious, slumped over the wheel, choking on his own blood. The ambulance arrives. A cop takes the narrator to the hospital with the rest of the family, where he learns that the husband has died.
Then he sees the widow of the driver. This is the crux of the story. “She had power over us,” the narrator says, “because we knew what was about to happen, and she didn’t.” He watches her walk into the room where she will be told her husband is dead:
The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
This encounter happens out of sight; the narrator only hears the scream and sees the light under the door. But the scream is a kind of revelation: That’s truth. It’s a moment of contact, if that’s the right word.