Haslett v. Wolff: a PEN/Malamud literary smackdown

Sean Carman, our Washington, D.C. correspondent, sends this report.

Last Friday the PEN/Faulkner Foundation gave the Bernard Malamud Award for the short story to Tobias Wolff and Adam Haslett. The event, arranged as a polite ceremony to honor the art of the short story, turned into pure literary smackdown, with two masters reading from unpublished manuscripts on the empty stage of an Elizabethan theater, with only the podium and their water glasses for support.

The evening began with introductions by Richard McCann who, with his lean frame, blonde hair cascading to one side of his head, and charming literary anecdotes (involving his own run-ins with Wolff and Haslett at Yaddo), brought a decidedly George Plimpton-esque panache to the evening.

Then the readings began. Haslett went first, reading from the unpublished manuscript of a story he said he had finished only a few months before.

“Operation Earnest Will” was pure dynamite. The story takes its title from the U.S. Navy’s operation to provide armed naval escorts for Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War. It was during this operation that the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, a commercial airliner taking off from Bandar Abbas on its way to Dubai. Haslett recounts the jetliner’s demise through the eyes of the American lieutenant who fires the missile that brings the plane down. He weaves that story through the same lieutenant’s dash into town, later that night, to buy cigarettes. It’s an amazing piece of work. When the cigarette vendor confronts the lieutenant (the television in the shop is replaying footage of the dead passengers floating in the Gulf), the lieutenant is unbowed. “I’ll have you know, sir,” he says, “that in the same circumstances, I would do it again.”

Haslett finished to a strong round of applause. Wolff grinned, raised his eyebrows, and shook his head. He didn’t put his head in his hands, but you could tell the gesture crossed his mind. It was his turn.

Wolff began by acknowledging that he had also brought a new story with him. “But I hadn’t planned to read it,” he said, “because I was afraid.” His voice cracked along a delicate line when he said this. But, noting that Haslett had just wowed the audience with a new story, Wolff allowed that had no choice. “I sat here listening to Adam read from his new manuscript,” Wolff said, “and I felt craven. So I’m going to read something new, too.”

Thus did Wolff unveil “A Mature Student,” about a veteran Marine who unwittingly turns the tables on her art history professor in an informal extra-curricular discussion. Wolff’s story was accomplished — a perfect demonstration of the short story’s art — but he was clearly gunning only for a tie. Haslett had already stolen the show.

Both writers accepted their plaques, and Janna Malamud Smith concluded with a recitation of the speech her father gave upon winning the National Book Award in 1959, an appropriate homage to the short story.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the short story is dead — that publishers aren’t interested in collections, and that if you aren’t writing a novel you’re wasting your time. Last Friday, listening to Haslett and Wolff spin beautiful tales that stopped time just long enough to make opposite worlds collide, you couldn’t help thinking that “the Art of the Glimpse,” as William Trevor called it, is perfectly alive and well.


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