Correspondent’s Course: Motor City Fiction


Like many of you good folks out there, The Open Bar has caught the flu bug (the non-cocktail strain) and has been hunkered down with a bottle of NyQuil for a week. Between visions of a Kleenex/Thermometer apocalyptic war and coughing fits, we haven’t had too many reasons to smile, let alone tap our shoes. But on the drive to work today, a certain Mr. Bob Seger came over the airwaves to help alleviate our suffering. There is just something about that Michigan boy’s voice that kicks the sickness right out of you.

Novelist Scott Sparling can attest to the healing powers of The Silver Bullet Band. A Motor City native, Scott’s debut novel, Wire to Wire, takes readers along the same burnt out streets that provided the backdrop to so many of Seger’s best songs. Michigan is not just home to great music though. It has turned out its fare share of amazing literature as well, which Scott shares with us as this week’s roving correspondent.

There are many Michigans, at least three that I know, unless you get unhitched from time, in which case there are more. But let’s stay in the present and say three, starting with the north – those voices from the upper third of the mitten and the Upper Peninsula.

That means starting with Jim Harrison, even though he left for Arizona and Montana several years ago. If you’ve read Harrison (and I’m guessing you have) there’s nothing more I need to say. If you haven’t, the impossible question is where to begin, considering there are 17 novels and as many books of poetry to choose from. (Learning from Harrison’s mistakes, I’ve avoided burdening readers with too much choice simply by writing only one book. Jim, take note.) For purely arbitrary reasons, I advise starting either at the beginning or with the most current. My entry point was Harrison’s first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir a young man returns from the east to Michigan’s Huron Mountains – but you could do just as well, I’m sure, by going with the recently published The Great Leader. If you want to mainline the stuff, go for the poetry, but be prepared for lines to get stuck in your head forever. One that has put down roots in mine is, “We are more than dying flies in a shithouse, though we are that, too.” I’ve found that to be an excellent pick-up line, as you invariably go home alone and get lots of writing done. (And if it ever worked – my god, lock the door.)

From there, Ander Monson, who has also left Michigan for Arizona. (What’s going on here? Has anyone looked into this? Should I be Arizona now?) To my mind, Monson is of somewhat the same ilk as Harrison – attracted to the same lonely spaces of love and death, the same ripe and sometimes rotting stuff. Except he’s fractured in a more modern way – with electricity and data, partially deconstructed. “If you breath in,” he writes in Other Electricities, “you might get the burned ends of language in your lungs or in your heart or in the billion capillaries….” and indeed you might.

While there’s more to the north, the new literary locus of the state is arguably in southwest Michigan – in Grand Rapids and in Kalamazoo, where Jaimy Gordon and Bonnie Jo Campbell write. You know Lord of Misrule, for which Gordon won the National Book Award. Her story, “A Night’s Work, springs from the same racetrack and gives us Kidstuff’s fate. Included in Best American Short Stories 1995, it’s now online at the Western Michigan University site. Somehow, with Gordon, every sentence is a story of its own, yet the pace never slows. The language is stunningly good, but I never feel there’s any writing going on. The only possible explanation is magic.

Bonnie Jo Campbell has written about Michigan in a way that rivals Harrison or Hemingway’s Nick Adam’s stories, not that there’s an actual rivalry involved. Anything by Campbell will get you there, and Once Upon a River is not to be missed. On the other hand, her collection, American Salvage, has a snake that won’t show itself (much) but won’t leave my imagination. In “Storm Warning,” the curve of a girl’s shoulders and legs reminds her boyfriend of Lake Michigan dunes. “He had read enough Popular Science to be aware that the universe might be curved and finite, but he didn’t realize until now that the great expanse was probably shaped like a woman.” With that, I’m in. Plus Campbell’s website says, parenthetically, and apropos of I know not what, “The gorilla girl will take you home,” which makes a nice counterpart, I think, to Harrison’s shithouse line, though it might be slightly more effective in bars.

So far, all of this skews to the underside of things, which says more about me than about Michigan writers. Just up State Road 131 in Grand Rapids, two other writers, Kristina Riggle and Adam Schuitema take a different starting point, finding paths to the heart in what seem like ordinary days. You can feel the weather in Schuitema’s collection of stories, Freshwater Boys. The midwestern heat, the winter’s cold. He rushes nothing, taking us around the edges of big events – a kidnapped baby, a boy shot by a hunter – allowing us to feel the marks they leave. One story, “Debts and Debtors” has a dad hitting pop flies to his son so vividly I started wondering if I could still find my glove.

Riggle writes about families and things that happen indoors (mostly), opening small moments of daily life into something bigger. Everyday sniping over how the dishwasher should be loaded becomes a deeper trip into our messy hearts. With three books in three years, and another one coming in 2012, she’s on her way to a long shelf of her own, but if you start now you can keep pace. Things We Didn’t Say, her current book, is the story of a missing child and a relationship that’s missing some parts. And there’s a wonderfully malicious ex-wife, who starts one of her POV sections with the line, “She’s staring at that drink like she’s going to fuck it,” a sentence that would be right at home in Swag, the Elmore Leonard book I’m currently reading.

And with that we arrive at the third Michigan – the southeastern portion, including Detroit, where many of Leonard’s forty-three books have been set. Indeed, the interactive map of Leonard’s Detroit has so many pushpins, you can hardly see the city.

Tom McGuane, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeffrey Eugenides have left some pushpins here too. Today, though, the guide I turn to is Michael Zadoorian’s The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, a collection of stories that are heartbreaking and funny and dead-on true, whether you’ve lived in the Motor City or not. In “To Sleep,” a Euthanasia Tech at a pet shelter builds altars for the animals she’s dispatched. In “Dyskinesia,” a rootless young man befriends an elderly woman with Parkinson’s. “Her head was tilted a little to the left and her arms were moving in a way that reminded him of Joe Cocker. Weird, considering that her voice and general appearance made him think of Katherine Hepburn. One didn’t usually expect to find these two in the same body.”

Not far from Detroit, the imaginary suburb of Fairfield is the setting for Miriam Gershow’s The Local News. I’m honestly not sure why I picked this book up – it’s written in first person, which I’m slightly biased against, the narrator is a teenage girl, and it’s set in a suburb, for god’s sake. But I know why I couldn’t put it down. Lydia, the conflicted, insecure, risk-taking teenager at the heart of the story, got hold of me good. Apparently, I was once a 15-year-old girl and as I read I regressed. While this transformation was taking place, there was just enough of me left to watch Gershow taking risks that shouldn’t have paid off and land them perfectly. (On top of that, Gershow made the same Michigan to Oregon migration I made. Take that, Monson and Harrison: we’ll match your two Michigan-to-Arizona’s and – if we can recruit Tom Bissell – raise you one.)

That leaves one last place to go: Ann Arbor. For years, A2 was the realm of Charles Baxter. Several books feature his fictional Five Oaks, but for me it’s The Feast of Love, in which a character named Charlie Baxter meets a man and a dog named Bradley, and – well, you know the story, right? Plus there’s this description of a couple making love on the 50-yard line of the Big House: “They are making soft distant audibles.” Yeah.

There is much more, of course. In my shithouse-fly ignorance, I’ve left out Michael Delp and Jack Driscoll and Matt Bell and others I should be reading. The hashtag #MichLit on Twitter will lead you to the ones I’ve missed, as will MittenLit, Night Light Revue, The Smoking Poet and Michigander Monday, good Michigan blogs all. From a literary point of view, you’d have to say the state turns out to be a pretty pleasant peninsula after all.

Scott Sparling grew up near railroad tracks in Michigan. He now lives outside Portland, Oregon, with his wife and son. Wire to Wire is his first novel.