Break Away Books: The Literary Memory Of The Midwest

"Writers are tenders of the necropolis—people who take care of the city of the dead."

Midwest sky crop

Photo: jamacdonald

For Michael Martone and the writers published by Break Away Books, the Midwest is a compelling subject--in part because it is no longer what it once was.

Break Away Books is a new series of literary fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction and poetry with a Midwest connection, published by Indiana University Press. Its first two publications are The Glimpse Traveler, by Marianne Boruch, and The Swan, by Jim Cohee. The series is edited by Susan Neville, a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, and Michael Martone, who writes mainly fiction and essays.

Making It Strange

Michael Martone is a co-editor for Break Away Books. He’s well-suited to the task; though he lives in Alabama now, he’s an Indiana native, and the author of a number of books about the state that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction—pieces of writing that he’s called, in one collection, “collages, fragments, postcards and ruins.”

“I’m from the northern part of the state,” Martone explains, “and the northern part of the state is really the part that most people who are not from Indiana think Indiana is: It’s all flat, and it’s cornfields, and also Rust Belt industrial cities. Most people don’t think much happens—and they’re right—so for me it was the challenge of making Indiana interesting.”

If many people think of Indiana as defined, in a sense, by its flatness, Martone believes good writing about the state takes advantage of their preconceptions. “I’m very interested in that idea of defamiliarization: taking the ordinary and making it strange. There isn’t a greater ordinary around except for Indiana. All I try to do is slow down and take a look at Indiana and everything we just take for granted. It becomes strange, and different, and—hopefully—entertaining.”

That Other America

Jim Cohee’s novel The Swan defamiliarizes the experience of being a ten-year-old child, playing in your yard in Indianapolis.

I ran the path around the swing set in the side yard, ran with pinwheeling arms, my mind gone in dreams of baseball triumphs, and I supplied the sound for my phantom radio, the exhilarated play-by-play and, behind that, the intergalactic whisper of amazed and joyful fans—a whisper, but huge. Pentecostal frenzies gripped the stadium when I snapped fly balls out of the air in right field and threw runners out at home. I also recoiled from the blows of boxers while I ran, then counterpunched and POW! I decked them and circled the ring with raised arms—my manager wept— while thousands in darkened halls stood and cheered.

Both Martone and Jim Cohee are both Indiana ex-patriots—or were, when they started writing about the state. The process of leaving a place and re-creating it in a piece of fiction, Martone says, is “probably the big American issue.”

“The big American drama has to do between two worldviews that we hold as Americans—not just Midwesterners or Hoosiers. We really believe in what we call ‘small-town values,’ ‘family values,’ but we also believe in our incredible freedom to move—both spatially and also economically—that we can move up in class and rank. But the truth is, in our country, that mobility won out. And so there’s this kind of lost limb feeling that I think we all have: There is that longing, still, for that other America.”

Tenders Of The Necropolis

Marianne Boruch’s The Glimpse Traveler is suffused with that sense of that longing. At its opening, her characters stand around a cabin, listening to a record on a record player while it rains outside.

There’s rain and there’s rain. Maybe there’s a difference at the edge of a continent. Late afternoon when we entered the cabin. I didn’t know the guy. A friend of a friend bent over the old phonograph—a record player we called them as kids, small and nearly square, with dull silver buckles, a plastic handle, worn leatherette skin. The kind you lower the arm and bring the needle down yourself. Like sparking a flame, that quick broken note before it takes and follows the groove of the record, into music. We stood and listened to him listening. I have no idea: jazz or a slow ballad, some rock star burning out in a year or two. So many scratches, the wash of static, the rain outside. How the ear gets past all that, and surrenders. Or his hunger, so deeply tangled. Had I ever seen such pleasure?

“I think it’s interesting,” Martone considers, “that both of these books are kind of experimental memoirs. There’s a kind of attention that’s being paid to the swiftness of what’s being lost. What writers are is a kind of tender of the necropolis—that is, someone who takes care of the city of the dead.”

In a part of America that is being rapidly overtaken by strip malls and big agriculture, Break Away Books is doing its part to prevent the memory of a Midwest that’s dead and gone from slipping away.

External Links

The Swan (excerpt) The Glimpse Traveler (excerpt)

 

Rachel Lyon

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Rachel Lyon came to Bloomington in 2009 to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing at IU. At WFIU, she is an announcer for All Things Considered and classical music, and she produces features for Artworks. Rachel's glad to be working in radio again after a long drought since her undergraduate years, when she was a DJ for WPRB, the independent station in Princeton, NJ.

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