Readings From Flyover Country

A Guide: Books and writers who would be better known if we Midwesterners believed in horn tooting, but we don't because no one likes a horn tooter, and there's nothing so special about you that deserves tooting about anyway.

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Recommended by John Warner

I’ll admit it, when it comes to books and literature, we Midwesterners have an inferiority complex. American publishing is and always will be centered around New York. New Stories From the South competes for readers on shelves next to Best American Short Stories. I’ve never seen a “Best of the Midwest” anthology anywhere. Midwestern literature tells the stories of the ordinary, the lives most of us live, and inevitably these books are going to seem quieter than some of their regional brethren, and that quiet is a tough thing to sell. Midwestern literature rests on the tension between the reality that individual lives aren’t especially important, and yet life must be lived anyway. The Midwesterner accepts the world as a dark place, but a place we have to try our best to make do in anyway. On the surface, these lives should read sad, depressing, but in the soldiering on there is a kind of triumph. Think Vonnegut. Think George Saunders. Midwesterners both.
These are some books and writers who would be better known if we Midwesterners believed in horn tooting, but we don’t because no one likes a horn tooter, and there’s nothing so special about you that deserves tooting about anyway.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

You could say that Anderson is the Midwest’s Faulkner, except that Anderson was Anderson before Faulkner was Faulkner, and Faulkner probably wouldn’t have been messing around with Yoknapatawpha County if he hadn’t been influenced by Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio. We call this book a novel, but it’s really a “story cycle,” a form used more recently by Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), and Tom Rachman (The Imperfectionists). Unlike those he influenced (Hemingway and Steinbeck, in addition to Faulkner), Anderson’s hold on the American canon is much more tenuous. But it shouldn’t be. If Mississippi burns, Anderson’s Ohio simmers. The dominant emotion is a deep (and satisfying) melancholy.

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The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

Perhaps the greatest Chicago novel ever written (no offense to Mr. Bellow). Frankie Machine, a dealer for underground card games comes home from World War II hooked on morphine, a habit picked up in the hospital while recovering from his wounds. Things get darker from there. Sinatra starred in the movie and got an Oscar nomination. The book is better.

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Staggerford by Jon Hassler

Hassler published a dozen novels over a thirty-year publishing career that didn’t start until he was in his forties. Staggerford is his first and tells the story of Miles Pruitt, a mid-thirties English teacher in a small town. It delivers a lot of laughs before ultimately breaking your heart. You could say that Jon Hassler is the Richard Russo of Minnesota, but it’s more accurate to say that Richard Russo is the Jon Hassler of Maine.

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Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is William Stoner, a farm boy who left home and became a professor of literature at the University of Missouri. This is the story of a life lived in quiet desperation under the pall of a bad marriage and thwarted hopes and yet somehow, Stoner manages to uplift the spirit. Find someone who has read this book and mention the title and watch their eyes go wide at the memory.

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Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

These are two separate novels turned into one movie, covering the lives of the titular couple, people of middle-class means and mores in pre-war Kansas City. Both books are written as series of dispatches, no longer than four or five pages, and as short as a single paragraph. Meaning accrues through inference, so you’re hardly noticing how far these people have burrowed inside of you.

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Buy Mr. Bridge: Amazon

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich has written so many good books it’s hard to pick one, but I chose this because you can draw a line from Winesburg, Ohio to the Native reservation where these interlaced narratives are set. Multi-family, multi-generational, simultaneously huge in scope and fine in focus.

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The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury

With humor as dry as the Iowa prairie where this novel is set, Drury unfurls the lives of an unlikely love triangle, Sheriff Dan Norman, ex-con Tiny Darling, and the former Mrs. Darling, and current Mrs. Norman, Louise. Sheriff Norman doesn’t want to save the world, but he tries to do right by his town, even though every last citizen seems bent on self-sabotage.

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The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day

Another “story cycle,” this one with a more exotic milieu, a late nineteenth to early-twentieth century traveling circus that “winters” in small-town Indiana. Each story brings a different performer or figure to the forefront, and while their professions may be unusual, the emotional tenor of the collection is pure Midwest, a deep and satisfying melancholy. The kind of book where after you finish a story, you want to just look out the window and think for awhile.

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Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter

Baxter is the Nobel Laureate of stories about “ordinary” lives, which are revealed to be anything but in his hands. Or maybe it’s that he shows us that no life is truly ordinary, or that ordinary is interesting. Whatever it is, Baxter’s stories are a kind of magic. I almost hesitate to recommend this compilation, because reading it—rather than the individual collections these stories have been culled from—means you’ll be missing out on a lot of great stories. Baxter has been quietly producing some of the most powerful American fiction of the last twenty-five years. If he lived in Manhattan instead of teaching writing at the University of Minnesota, he’d be on the cover of Time.

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John Warner is the editor of The Staff Recommends and the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant.


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