Here's how it works: each year since, well, last year, Reader editors have asked a Chicago writer we admire to judge the submissions to our annual fiction contest. There's no reason at all to think that the ability to pen a good novel automatically makes someone an expert at appraising other people's art, but it's worked pretty well so far. In 2010, Adam Levin, author of The Instructions (and now Hot Pink, a story collection due out in March), picked an extraordinary bunch. This time around Goldie Goldbloom very kindly agreed to do the job. Already fascinating in all kinds of ways—as, for instance, the only lesbian I've ever met who's also a practicing Hasid—Goldbloom distinguished herself by writing The Paperbark Shoe, the beautiful, horrible, unlikely yet entirely believable tale of a cultured, albino pianist who finds herself in the outest, backest region of the Australian outback during World War II.
Goldbloom's choices for the Reader fiction contest have done us proud. First among equals is "Sky Boys," which takes off on the famous 1932 photo of a construction crew eating lunch in midair, on an I beam at the top of a New York skyscraper. Steve Trumpeter has imagined the harrowing, paradoxically down-to-earth lives of the men in the picture. Timothy Moore's "Thank God for Facebook!" is goofy-touching: a brother's recounting of what happened when his murdered teenage sister started sending posts from the grave. Tovah Burstein's brief "Moving on at the Hipster Gym" is a strange, compelling hybrid—a satire that's also a cri de coeur. In "The Gentle Grift," Tim Chapman explores the ambivalence of a misfit who stumbles into middle class normality. And Jessie Morrison—whose "Carnival at Bray" was a winner last year—is back with "Teen Jeopardy," which gets at the tension, comedy, and class war underlying a Logan Square kid's trip to compete on the famous quiz show. Just start at the beginning and read through to the end. —Tony Adler
"'Can I hold your hand?' he asked. 'No,' I said. 'It's a safety thing. If I slipped, I might take you with me.'"
"He was like totally in love me with me, LOL. But his breath stank so I didn't go for it, and he freaking killed me with a pipe."
"I shrug and turn my lip down, like a woman I saw on the retro stationary bike, her jellies spinning the wheels slowly on her way to nowhere special."
"The Gentle Grift" by Tim Chapman
"That morning Jack had looked at his own hand under the fluorescent lighting in the office and seen his skeleton. He was becoming transparent. Soon, he thought, he'd be a shadow."
"Most 16-year-old Americans couldn't find, say, Slovakia on a map. Robbie could not only find it, he could tell you its capital, major exports, GNP, and national bird. He could also sing the first four bars of its national anthem."
Picks by Culture Editor Tony Adler:
Managing Editor Jerome Ludwig: