For regular visitors of Mr B’s, it won’t be a surprise to find us chatting about stories set in tiny communities, with much enthusiasm, and on a regular basis, be they American, Hungarian or Finnish. It’s not just us though – many of our long-term customers share this love/obsession for the quirk-ridden tale, peppered with local detail and flawed, loveable characters. One of our lovely customers, Imogen Adams, has been thinking about some of her favourite reads, set in the epitomical American small town.
By Imogen Adams
Photo credit: ‘Small town, main street’ by Complete Streets, under creative commons license
The rise of Trump has been explained as the backlash of middle America, of all those ailing towns and forgotten backroads that have been ignored by the liberal intelligentsia and decimated by globalisation. Though readers are eagerly picking up Hillbilly Elegy and other intelligent non fiction reads, we can also look to fiction to help us to understand these places. American authors have long been mining the rich complexities of daily life in the small cities, and in the rural communities that fill the space between the two coasts. Unlike their non fiction counterparts, these novels were not written with the benefit of hindsight. In them we might not find ‘truth’ exactly, but rather authenticity of feeling. When speaking at the Bath literature festival this year, Ann Patchett, who deftly examines everyday family life in several of her novels, quoted her mother’s response to her latest book, Commonwealth: ‘none of it happened, all of it’s true’. The same can be said for fiction as a whole – it delves beneath the surface to unveil the currents we swim in.
George Saunders’s short stories are bizarre and surreal, and yet leave you knowing more about what it is to be human, what it is to want, to fail, to love. They simultaneously take you out of everyday life and then drop you right back into the heart of it. The settings in Saunder’s Tenth of December collection are largely nameless. The reader gets the feeling they are immersed in middle of nowhere, strip-mall America. They aren’t cities where anything but ordinary life happens, and yet Saunders elevates these everyday events to something sublime and rich in meaning. The stories all seem set in the near future, in an exaggeration of our contemporary moment, (and what is Trump if not an exaggeration of everything we stereotype America as being?). There’s a satirical and dystopian element to many of the stories and Saunder’s doesn’t shy away from the darkness, yet, what is so unique about his work, is that he manages to marry this to warmth, sincerity and humanity. The titular story of the collection follows a bullied child and a terminally ill man who end up saving one another when the former falls into a frozen lake. Saunders has you grappling with mortality on one line, then laughing at childhood illusions the next, before you find yourself crying at the beauty of the world by the end of the paragraph. When I was younger, I used to be impressed by the coldness and irony of Bret Easton Ellis’, and many of his imitators, but once you read Saunders, you realise in a way how easy that kind of writing is. On a recent book tour for his Man Booker winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders spoke of how treating his characters with empathy is a way of valuing the intelligence of the reader. This compassion and desire to dig a little deeper into the human condition means that his short stories can offer us glimpses into the lives of everyday Americans. Indeed, Saunders was asked to follow the Trump campaign for The New Yorker and wrote one of the most even handed, empathetic accounts of his followers. Speaking at an event at Goldsmiths University earlier this year, he described it as a hard task, considering his own background and that ‘my stories are mostly about people who probably would be Trump supporters’.
Elizabeth Strout has long been a critical success, yet it seems that her public star has risen dramatically over the last year. Luckily for us, this means her earlier novels have been graced with new covers. Olive Kitteridge is a remarkable book, and yet it was previously obscured by one of the worst covers imaginable: a windswept seascape with a lone woman looking out from the rocky shore. It was sentimental and trite, exactly the opposite of Olive herself. Olive is complicated: she is not conventionally nice and yet there is a moral backbone and strength to her which becomes ever more appealing. As another of the characters says of her, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Perhaps one of the reasons that readers can’t help but like her is that in her contradictions she becomes resolutely multi dimensional and real. Olive isn’t necessarily who we aspire to be, but much closer to who we are. The novel is composed of thirteen short stories which together give us a holistic understanding of Olive. Strout seeks to debunk the picturesque seaside idylls peddled by those unfamiliar with the area in any but a tourist sense. She recalled in an interview, ‘When people in New York say things like, ‘I love Maine, Maine is so beautiful,’ I want to say, You don’t know anything abut Maine.’ It’s a very rough life.” By structuring the book in this fragmented manner, Strout allows us to explore the small town more thoroughly. We learn of the lives of many of its inhabitants, from the young to the very old, and all the heartbreaks and joys they have experienced in between.
This brings me to Plainsong by Kent Haruf. When my book club read Olive Kitteridge, a member of the group lamented what they saw as it’s depressing take on life. This isn’t a view I necessarily agree with, but I would offer Plainsong as an antidote. In many ways, it’s similar to Strout’s novel, and yet there is such an acceptance of humanity that it elevates it, and leaves you grasping the profundity of the seemingly simple lives described. Haruf has managed to distill the essence of a town, and write about it in a way that wholly accepts it just as it is, with no judgements made. The novel is set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. Each chapter is devoted to a particular character: there’s Tom Guthrie, high school teacher dealing with the break up of his family and malicious high school kids; his son’s grappling with the harsh realities of life in the rural community; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager abandoned by her family; and the McPheron Brothers, two old farmer bachelors with an overwhelming kindness behind their gruff exteriors. The landscape and its inhabitants, in Haruf’s writing, are monumental in their simplicity. You finish the book having become utterly absorbed into the lives of the townfolk. In the unadorned nature of the writing, its fictionality becomes lost and you think of each character as a real being in this small corner of middle America.
Now have a browse through our Small Town America reading list