Oddly Entertaining

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The sad, mythical town of Winesburg, Indiana, might seem like just another Midwestern flyover even if it existed. Those who take time to land on its quiet streets will be disabused of their haughtiness in the time it takes to visit the local park (where space aliens leave their poop), the house of worship (where Reverend Dave impregnates female faithful after ingesting their toenail clippings) or the chemistry lab (where a technician and zombie both are named Pete).

Not that extreme stretches of the imagination are all that the little town conjured by a whimsical band of Indiana-connected writers has to offer in Winesburg, Indiana, a new book from a new imprint by Indiana University Press.

There are stories that are mostly just odd, and/or funny. Poignant, even tragic. Risque to downright bawdy.

There’s Frances Parker, the physician who practices out of an abandoned church. Burt “Catman” Coble, who sees a lot behind those lonely windows as he drives about at night. Carl Frankenstein, school custodian, butt of unceasing ridicule from the kids, who tears off his nametag every night, re-opening “that old incision over my heart.”

And Tara, who knows from second grade onward that Melissa is the love of her life.

What’s this all about? For co-editor Michael Martone, it is an endeavor to recast Sherwood Anderson’s classic 1919 novel Winesburg, Ohio as a modern-day Hoosier portrait of “a town filled with people in what Thoreau described as quiet desperation.”

Whereas the individual memoirs of W.O’s fictional residents add up to a more-or-less unified narrative under Anderson’s pen, W.I.’s confessions are as disparate as its 29 contributors, of whom Martone, with 13 stories, was the busiest.

“Having a lot of stories that kind of hang together, but not adding up to one story, better reflects the kind of alienation we all feel, whether in Indianapolis or Winesburg,” says Martone, who co-edited with Butler University English instructor Bryan Furuness. “There’s a lot of pressure. Even with iPhones and so forth, we feel lonely with a crowd around us.”

A Fort Wayne native and a professor of English at the University of Alabama, Martone has explored Indiana from skies to groundwater in a lengthy oeuvre of novels, short stories and essays. Furuness, a fiction writer born in East Chicago, approached Martone some time back about writing parodies of current popular memoirs for Booth, the local literary magazine Furuness edits. Martone deemed those tell-all shockers too broad for parody, and suggested instead a takeoff that steals a famous book’s name but then takes off beyond parody in every direction of its own.

A highlight comes before the stories even begin, in the form of a mock cease-and-desist letter to the city manager of Winesburg, Indiana, from the Winesburg, Ohio, law firm of Biddlebaum Cowley Reefy and Swift LLP. Majestically formal, the missive warns against “using the Winesburg trademark in association with the marketing or sale of your products and services, namely, those of meditative introspection, synthetic emotional effects, general literary malaise, and cathartic artistic performances including but not limited to confessions, covetings, secrets-keeping, and the wholesale packaging and propagation of spent signature tears.”

Obviously, not enough to deter Tara Jenkins, Carl Frankenstein, the Processed Cheese Product Man or the Cleaning Lady to the Stars from giving voice. Much less to silence the great French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida from sending his postcards from the town diner, where he observes a “(tender)loin” undergoes “breading” and extends “beyond the edges of the circular boundaries” of the “bun.”

OK, you had to be there for that one. Several others by Martone, less esoteric, were among my favorites, especially “City Manager” and “The Cantor Quadruplets.” While there’s a wealth of wit and well-earned sentiment throughout this collection, I’d personally highlight two odd and gentle pieces, “Miss Gladys” by Lee Martin (about a retired schoolteacher’s remembrance of a long-ago sexual encounter) and Robin Black’s “Beau Morrow” (about a meat-seller who doesn’t have the stomach to be a butcher or the luck to win a customer’s love).

As a bonus, Winesburg, Indiana kicks off a new series of regional books from IU Press, edited by Martone, who’s long been an innovator and tinkerer with small publishing. Called Break Away Books (with appropriate bicycle logo), the imprint joins Engine Books of Indianapolis and Action Books of South Bend in a new wave of niche or community book production.

“There’s a critical mass around the state now,” Martone says. “It’s a big move by IU Press. “We’ll show there’s an audience for regional literary fiction and nonfiction.”

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