The Kansas City Star once extolled: "If anyone could be considered a rock-star of the short story genre, it is Rebecca Makkai." The author, who's based in Chicago, can certainly spin a good tale: Her stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years and her latest collection, Music for Wartime, was captivating last summer; last fall, she taught the art at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. Which isn't to say she doesn't know her way around a novel. To date, she's published two: her debut The Borrower, and The Hundred-Year House, both critically acclaimed. Here, she inaugurates a new feature for Sweet in which we ask experts in their field to give us a recommendation, and tell us why it means so much to them. We asked Makkai (that last name is pronounced a bit like Hawaii), to write about her favorite short story ever, and we've been re-reading it ever since.
The summer before my senior year of college, I failed to get a job. I was used to having no money, so I just lived on nearly expired canned goods from the back of my mother's pantry and figured it was my job to prepare for my upcoming English comp exams (two days of testing for every lit major) by reading the big authors I'd missed. I got anthologies from the library and made my way through Frost, Welty, Eliot.
All I knew about Flannery O'Connor, heading into her story "Good Country People," was her deep southern Catholicism, and that she lived with her parents until she died young, from lupus. I figured the story would be sweet, sentimental, redemptive.
My eyes were rolling before I'd read the first word.
And the story seemed to bear it out. Here was Hulga, an angry, atheist intellectual with an artificial leg, slowly learning to trust the young Bible salesman who had come to her mother's house. They went up into a hayloft together, and I was about to start skimming through the inevitable scenes of salvation and prayer. Presumably, they'd also fall in love.
And then I was reminding myself to breathe as the salesman pulled a flask from what turned out to be a hollowed-out bible, as he convinced Hulga to unscrew her leg for completely nefarious purposes, as he ran away.
I lay back on my bedspread and spent five minutes blinking at the ceiling.
I'd learn later that O'Connor was a master of misdirection, that this wasn't her only sucker-punch story, that I wasn't her only fool.
In that moment, I only understood: This is what a story can do. I never felt that way again. I've found even more stunning stories—it's just that you don't forget your first time.
These days, I assign her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"—an even bleaker, meaner tale—to my undergrads. I hand out the pages and explain that O'Connor was a mild-mannered religious woman who lived with her parents. Then I tell them to have a great weekend.