CL Fiction Contest: They went wild

Notes from our contest judge on the year’s top 10 stories.

The entrants for this year’s fiction contest chose their versions of “Wild” and went with it. Characters are gardeners and deputies, vagrants and criminals. They are love-weary boxers, scammers, volatile couples or notary publics. They over-indulge. They meet the dark sides of their natures, knife in hand. They survive. The stories dip into worlds in which wild is the standard and talking and holding hands on a date approaches the transgressive; places where Florida’s natural elements exhort control, draw people in, and leave them for dead.

In “Brenda Belle,” by J. Wynn Rousuck, the title character lives on the fringe, and manages to get by, always a plan in place. In Matt Peters’ “Hunters and Gatherers,” Reece, too, knows how to live between shelters — where to find food, who to cajole. His ruthlessness drives home the reality of living in the wild. There is little redemption for the couples we meet. Like Jacob, in Jon Silman’s “Knife Party,” drug use renders them unable to communicate, and trapped in stifling relationships. A young woman boxer learns, in Frank Drouzas’ “Protect Yourself At All Times,” how to vanquish her own troubled relationship history and find personal strength. “The Carousel of Life … But Literally,” by Ashley Bowcott, tosses us into an alternate world in which our conservative fears and taboos have become the accepted norm.

Florida in all its wildness makes an appearance in a handful of stories, like Cynthia Daffron’s uniquely quirky “Love in the Wild,” in which a couple shows up at a bright green house in St. Petersburg to get married — she’s pregnant, wearing sequins, and carrying an alligator head. Or Brian Lott’s “Seedbombers,” with its out-of-control plant life, its zealous protection of the wildness that sustains us. In “Seventeen Runs,” by David Bullard, we visit a reform facility for troubled youths and learn of the narrator’s own dark past, his secret hidden in the waters of the Hillsborough River.

The stories impress with their energy and invention, with voices that entertain us, like the reporter narrator in Rhonda Kitchens’ “The Wild-Ass One-Armed Man,” whose latest assignment leaves her with unexpected life lessons. And they are quieter, simpler, and create their own wild worlds, as in “Last Summer Fire,” by Kelsey Tressler, the story that stayed with me the longest. Here a children’s game in the woods comes to a poignant and inevitable end, and reveals the sorrow we drag with us when we leave the wildness of childhood behind.

Karen Brown was born in Connecticut. She is the author of a novel, The Longings of Wayward Girls (July 2013), and two short story collections, Pins & Needles (July 2013) and Little Sinners and Other Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and named a Best Book of 2012 by Publishers Weekly. Her work has been featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, and Good Housekeeping, and in many literary journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida.

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