The cost of founding the Nobel Prize for Literature was dynamite and war. The Michael M. Rea Award for the Short Story was established by a man of letters whose life, both before and after the invention of his prize, was fixed on the explosive power of small-scale art. The Rea Award seems to me to be the purest of all prizes – an act of homage and love and gratitude for the protean short story, for its narrow deeps and alpine glimpses. The short story is the art of the glimpse: the whole of life seized in the brilliant blink of a sovereign eye. And a short story is a more difficult form than a novel, just as a novel is more difficult than an epic, and a haiku more demanding than a sonnet. The smaller the form, the greater pressure for perfection. That is why Michael himself, and the spirit of his prize, are on the side of the consummate.
It was my privilege and honor – and I confess I was stupefied – to be the first recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story. I remember the annunciatory phone call: I expected Michael Rea to be an intimidating, even a fearsome philanthropist. Instead I heard the shy and modest voice of a man who was himself a striving writer of stories, though I did not learn that until much later. When, soon after the astonishment of that call, I finally met Michael and Elizabeth Rea, I read in the eyes of both of them all the imperatives of what was unashamedly called Beauty, meaning, as Keats meant it, Truth. Nowadays we try to veil that word, and sometimes say Insight instead. But both words are appropriate to Michael and Elizabeth Rea: Beauty and Insight.
By now the Rea Award is an indispensable American institution and a coveted American prize. It is our little Nobel – little only in the sense that it addresses the short form. But it is as large as Michael Rea’s heart, and no recipient of the Rea Award has ever encountered anything larger, or more capaciously literary, than that.
On Good Friday of 1996 I woke with a mild stomach illness, and went back to sleep. Sometime that morning I heard a man’s voice on my answering machine in the dining room, down the hall from where I slept. I did not know his voice and did not pick up the phone. I slept, and woke at noon, worrying about money. I had a little over two thousand dollars left in the account I live on. To get through the next twelve months I needed another twenty-two thousand, though I receive fifteen hundred a month in retirement and social security checks. This is absurd; it even feels immoral, though usually my only luxuries are music, books, movies, and sometimes a pipe. I remember when a thousand a and month paid for everything, and I remember many years when I did not earn a thousand a month. I think of Haiti; I think of other places.
After making the bed and dressing I played the answering machine. The man whose voice was on it was Michael Rea. I knew of the Rea Award, had hoped for a few years to receive it, but I did not know that it came from a man named Rea. He called me Andre and said he would call me again. I did not want him to, this stranger. I wanted to rest and heal and find some money without plundering from the mutual fund in Texas, emergency money I pretend is not there. At one o’clock I got saltines and Coca-Cola and turned on the television for a Red Sox game. In the early innings the phone rang and I answered.
“Andre? This is Michael Rea. Do you know me?”
He sounded happy. I was not in the mood for a happy stranger, calling an unlisted number during a ball game when I was tired and nauseated.
“No. Am I supposed to?”
“I’m sitting here with George Garrett and Jayne Anne Phillips and Barry Hannah. Do you know them?”
“I know George and Jayne Anne. I’ve never met Barry. Where are you? In a bar?”
“We’re in my living room. I’m calling to give you the Rea Award.”
“Oh my God.”
“It used to be twenty-five thousand, but I’ve raised it to thirty-thousand this year.”
Tears were on my cheeks. I said, “You can’t believe how much I need thirty thousand dollars.”
“I know you do.”
Then he told me he had been a marine at the end of World War II, stationed in China. I asked him what outfit he had been in.
“So was I,” I said.“At Camp Pendleton."
The next week I got the check and took my family to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate. I lived on the money for over a year, after Michael was dead, and I was grateful for it, month after month, thinking of him as my brother marine who loved stories. Semper fidelis, Michael, and thank you