May 4 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 5 here.)

As done previously in this series, in this post I will describe the essences of four short stories I’ve recently read. Then I’ll compare and contrast those essences, as well as the settings and narrators to each story. Three of the following stories were published by New Pop Lit and one by The Masters Review.

I.

The essence of the story “The Fetus” by Clint Margrave (of Los Angeles) might be found in the words of the teacher of the story, Mr. Schlosser, when he says, “Sometimes in order to study life, we also have to study death.” It seems as if the narrator is reflecting back on a past episode of his own life, that  he is studying a part of his “life” that is now “dead”––way back in 1980’s Anaheim––a time when, apparently, fetuses could be found in jars in the science classrooms of American middle schools.

The unnamed narrator––in a story where nearly a dozen student characters are named––speculates, near the story’s end, on the fate of the fetus in the jar. Was it forgotten about but never “disposed of,” was it buried, lost in the bureaucracy of the school district, “like a bad memory. An uncomfortable truth?”

This story isn’t just about bullying between a single dominator and a single victim. Margrave rather digs into the complexity of the social hierarchy of students in public schools. The narrator is a bully who targets victim Christian Wojtynek, but there are several indications that the unnamed bully is himself bullied by others. The narrator in “The Fetus” takes out his frustrations of being bullied by picking on Christian, who then, in the plot’s climax, throws the jar with the fetus at the narrator.

II.

The essence of the story “Eighty Pounds” by Jon Berger (of Saginaw, Michigan) seems to occur when the narrator Teague, a ne’er-do-well high school age kid, finds out that a friend of his, Kaleigh, was raped by the school’s top jock Will at a weekend party. The story also reveals Will is someone who has a history of bullying Teague.

With: (a) Teague’s father in prison; (b) Teague’s behavior scrutinized with zero-tolerance at school––he will be permanently suspended if he gets into another fight; (c) his struggle with a learning disability never fully articulated to readers; (d) his drug peddling that seems to only pay for his own supply; and (e) the fact that the drug peddling is encouraged by his incarcerated father, the nonromantic friendship with Kaleigh appears to have been the only thing good going on in his life. And now that too is probably ruined.

For Teague’s reaction to hearing about Kaleigh is to therefore beat up Will. Teague then gets permanently banned from his school, and Will’s future as a college athlete gets quashed.

This story takes place near a town called Merrill, possibly Merrill, Wisconsin, in the central part of that state. Teague shuffles back and forth between various institutions in Merrill: school, prison, juvenile hall. The story is told as a confessional, told in the past tense. By telling the story in the past tense, it seems obvious Teague is narrating from the future, looking back on previous events. Perhaps in the future he’s been arrested, and, under interrogation, was asked “how did this all start?” and Teague begins to remember this particular episode from his childhood.

But bullying is only a part of Berger’s story. Most of “Eighty Pounds” focuses on a kid trapped between the biology of his learning disability, weed farming, and drug usage on one end; and on the other, he is confined by the various institutions of the society that surround him––a society in which he seems only peripherally a part of.

III.

Both Margrave’s story “The Fetus” and Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” involve bullying among peers in an educational environment. They should be compared, therefore, to “A Man Stands Tall,” a story by Gabriel Moseley in The Masters Review Volume VI––a story about a reality TV show trying to capture 19th-century self-reliance by hiring a family to live in the wilderness. A line from Moseley’s story: “all bullies have sob stories” really stands out when comparing all three stories, because it probably applies to all of them.[1]

In “A Man Stands Tall” Moseley’s detached narrator mentions previous bullying incidents where the family’s son Ajay was the victim. Like “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” these incidents occurred in a school environment.[2] Through an unnamed narrator Moseley (a freelance writer from Seattle) reveals that the school institutionally punished Ajay’s bullies by making them write essays about why bullying is wrong.[3] Indeed, the essence of Moseley’s story appears to be the question: how do victims and the parents of victims deal with bullies? It’s a question everyone in a true community asks themselves as they watch their neighbors deal with violence among children, whether those neighbors exist physically across the street in real life or merely narratively (and digitally) on so-called reality TV.

IV.

The essence of “The Professor,” a story by A. K. Riddle (a seventeen-year-old writer from Illinois) appears to come when the professor of a prep school in the fictitious (?) town of Hayport, Wisconsin is informed by his physician that the professor-patient is descending into retro-immaturity. Much like a moment in Michael Chabon’s novel (but not the movie based upon it) Wonder Boys (1995), which is also about a professor, Riddle’s protagonist is warned that “You’re not a teenager anymore. You’re forty-seven.” In Wonder Boys the character Grady is a professor at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh and is known for writing one great novel. But Grady’s ability to improve his behavior––overcoming both substance abuse and procrastinating finishing his long-overdue second novel––gets him out of the social ditch in which he’s dug himself. So Grady is unlike the unnamed title character in Riddle’s story “The Professor,” someone who only further accelerates his own decline.

Riddle’s professor is a fan of Eric Clapton’s song “Layla,” which, as a song, starts off heavy and strong, then moves to a long declension in tempo, tone, and mood. The loud and rough guitar gets replaced by smooth, soothing piano. The bright calm of the C major scale comes in to overtake the bluesy A minor scale that came before. But the professor’s actions tend to do the opposite; he is running away from his role model of the old Englishman who learned to play American blues, running away from his dreams, and thereby, accelerating toward a waking life nightmare. Life gets rougher the more he goes along.

“The Professor” also represents a significant contrast to the three previously discussed stories in this post in that while Riddle’s story is grammatically told in the past tense, it essentially unfolds for the reader in present time––in the sense that the reader witnesses the professor’s downfall as the narrator relates the actions and consequences of the professor in “real time.”

I’m still trying to determine the significance of the repeated motif: “All rust and gasoline, chewed up dog toys”––for this is not only the literal image of a car that belonged to the professor’s friend back when he was in high school, but it’s also used to describe the professor’s own old car in the present.

Yet the line can also be interpreted as a metaphorical image of what the professor’s life has become at this point: just an old chewed up dog toy. He is certainly abusing himself, but I’m a little hesitant to go all the way and argue that the professor bullies himself, for unlike the first-person narrators in “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” the inner monologue of the professor is never revealed to the reader. But the professor’s antisocial behavior certainly suggests to readers he is trying to avoid facing some similar “uncomfortable truth” as mentioned in Margrave’s story “The Fetus.”

V.

As stories, both Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” and Riddle’s “The Professor” focus on decline in the Midwest;[4] the former on the decline of a society where an individual tries to survive the downfall, while the latter follows the nosedive of an individual, and it remains unknown whether the society he lived in contributed to his collapse.

With regard to the Midwest, it isn’t so important that “The Fetus” takes place in Anaheim so much as it takes place in the 1980’s. It’s also important (and evident) that it occurs somewhere in a middle-class American suburbia, no matter the sub-region. But all of these stories, “The Fetus,” “Eighty Pounds,” “A Man Stands Tall,” and “The Professor,” try to diagnose two particular sociological sicknesses of our time, what the Germans call Zeitkrankheit. Those two being: substance abuse and bullying, and both stem out of public school environments.

UPDATE:

From my father, who turned 55 yesterday:

NOTES

wood

[1] Gabriel Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer & Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 9.

[2] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 4, 6.

[3] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 8–9.

[4] The Midwest is not declining per se. There are places of decline and places that are thriving quite nicely. Joel Kotkin explains some of this very complicated situation:

It would be wonderful if this resurgence covered the entire Midwest, restoring the regions standing a century ago, when, as author Jon Lauck writes, “the Midwest stood tall as the republic’s ascendant and triumphant region.” Yet today many of the premier Midwest industrial hotbeds have not yet recovered their dynamism. Almost all the comeback Midwestern cities were never strictly manufacturing burgs, but rather state capitals, university towns, and trade and distribution centers. Places like Kansas City, Columbus, and Des Moines may have been hit hard by de-industrialization but not as thoroughly as places like Detroit, Cleveland, and even Pittsburgh. (“The Midwest is Booming—Just Not Where You Think,” NewGeography.com, April 30, 2018.)

Yet also consider Jason Segedy (director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio) and his recent take on the prospects of the Midwest in general and Akron in particular:

This is the type of place that is routinely ignored by urbanists and pundits. It is a community that is already racially diverse, and where many residents may be poor, but are also employed, and also own their home. This is the type of place where the binary, coastal gentrification narrative of rich versus poor, or white versus black, simply does not apply. (“Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, Not Gentrification Worries,” The American Conservative, April 6, 2018.)


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

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[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).