Once the word “regional” was used to dismiss writing that was firmly based in a particular place. There might have been good reason for condescension: some of the writing wasn’t of in-terest to anyone beyond a particular city or region. But in the new, diminished world of American publishing, books that never have had large audiences—collections of poetry and short fiction, in particular—are desperately looking to find readers. Wayne State University Press’s “Made in Michigan Writers Series” attempts to build that audience locally then hopes to market their books outward from that base. (Full disclosure: I have a book in this series.)
Two new collections of short stories are wonderful examples. Both Bonnie Jo Campbell and Michael Zadoorian have published widely in literary journals and commercial novels. Yet both of their new collections are rooted in Michigan. Both are sometimes wildly funny and more than a little crazy, yet they have a heartbreaking affection for the battered lives they portray.
The stories in Campbell’s American Salvage all take place in west Michigan but not in some idealized natural environment overlooking a big lake. The people in these stories struggle to find their way through an America where country roads lead to broken homes, meth labs, alcohol addiction, and abuse. Yet the people suffering these ills also struggle to express their love and to reclaim their dignity. In “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” we read several wild fantasies about how Brian and his baby can escape from his meth-addicted wife, who squanders what little money they have and often turns violent. He imagines murder and flight to some other state, and there is a dark humor to much of his fantasy. But in the end, he will live with his wife because “you knew she had this history when you married her, when she got pregnant, but you thought you could kick it together, you thought that love could mend all broken things—wasn’t that the whole business of love?”
In the title story of Zadoorian’s The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, the protagonist rides a bus down Woodward toward the heart of the city. Along the way, he remembers where Polyne-sian restaurants—those wonders of the ’70s that tried to give us a sense of adventure with their fruity drinks, fake palm trees, wicker furniture, and waiters in Hawaiian shirts—had their short moments of life, between the 1967 riot and the crack epidemic of the early ’80s. He is the only white guy on the bus, and a drunk homeless person gives him grief for daring to ride “our bus.” The drunk turns obscene, and the driver kicks him off.
“For a moment, I try not to laugh about what just happened, but just can’t help myself,” the protagonist admits. A mother riding with a young child “looks at me, puts a hand over her mouth, but soon her head is shaking and she can no longer hold it in. Everyone on the bus starts laughing. Up in the rearview mirror, I can even see the driver smiling.” It is a wonderfully human moment but is also typical of Detroit, one of the reasons many of us continue to find ways to cherish that city.
Campbell and Zadoorian read from their new books at Shaman Drum on Thursday, June 11.