By Michael Martone
Baobab Press, 2022
Paperback, $ 16.95
Genre: Short Fiction
Reviewed by Don Noble
In 1919 Sherwood Anderson published his collection of loosely connected stories Winesburg, Ohio and it became, almost instantly, an American classic. Anderson wrote 22 short stories, each about a citizen of his fictional Winesburg. At that time the small town was held in nearly religious awe. There were front yards with big oak trees, and a swing and a freckle-faced lad: an Eden.
Not so, said Anderson. In Winesburg, the characters feel smothered by conformity and isolated from one another. Unable to be fully themselves, each becomes distorted into a narrow grotesque, with a single obsession, or secret. It was a place to flee from.
Now over 100 years later, Michael Martone, 2023 recipient of the Truman Capote Prize for Distinguished Work in the Short Story, has published Winesburg, Indiana. Martone, like Anderson, includes a map of his fictional village. His volume contains an astounding 130 very short stories. A few characters have more than one, but mostly they are individual little cries. The characters should move away but show no sign of doing so. They are caught, frozen.
The Winesburg of Anderson seemed to be thriving, which made the inhabitants’ unhappiness less obviously explainable. Martone’s Winesburg, Indiana, is not thriving. Like much of the Midwest, its best years seem to be behind it, and there is an exhausted, Rust Belt quality to the place. Even the local river, the Fork River, gives up and runs underground. N.B.: Anderson’s Winesburg had been influenced by the poetry collection Spoon River Anthology. Get it? “Spoon River,” “Fork River”: Martone has no shame. It is all fun.
Some enterprises hang on. There is a lively business in burials because the nearby city of Fort Wayne—Martone’s actual home place—decided to become a cemetery-free zone, exhume all its dead and transfer them to Winesburg, a state-sanctioned reburial site. The city manager admits that he knows not how to “cease and desist the steeping municipal sadness here….The newly dead arrive daily, carried by a special midnight-blue fleet of North American Van Lines tractor-trailers….”
Likewise, due to an odd Indiana law regarding hair from barbers’ floors, Winesburg has a state-registered hair dump. “A thriving cottage industry persists, that of locket-making,” even though the hair used is anonymous.
No, reader, these Indiana laws are not real. Martone invents state law as needed.
There is a still-operating moist towelette company, but the floss factory has closed. There is one resident at the YMCA and perhaps the last Fuller brush salesman in America. A determined fellow broadcasts his cable show from the deserted and abandoned food court of the defunct mall.
Martone’s earlier book, The Blue Guide to Indiana (2001), my favorite of all his books, was an entire volume of tourist attractions that do not exist except in Martone’s imagination.
Many fiction writers strive to create fiction that seems real. Martone writes stories that seem, truly, real, but are not at all. Over the decades in Alabama, he has written hundreds of stories set in Indiana, not the real one– the imagined one.
Sometimes writers need a little distance from their material. Thomas Wolfe in his Brooklyn apartment wrote of Asheville. James Joyce, in Paris, wrote of Dublin—he could remember the shops on a street, in order. Martone in Tuscaloosa writes with great verve and imagination of his native Indiana. He has no need to remember details. He makes them up as he goes along.
Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof. of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show “Bookmark” since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities, and the Governor’s Arts Award. A version of this review was featured on APR.