- Panoply of Ozarks Humanity
University of Notre Dame Press
210 Pages; Print, $20.00
Lately my heart has been aching for the Ozarks, my home country. The destructive twin blades of property crime and the opioid crisis have cut both my parents and my wife's parents in once placid, middle class, suburban neighborhoods along Springfield, Missouri's south side. A July KCUR-National Public Radio piece outlined the grinding poverty of service work in Branson, that wholesome hillbilly entertainment mecca. Articles in the Springfield News-Leader, the newspaper that trained me, recently detailed how rural Ozarkers with no job prospects have flooded my hometown, the one big city, only to fall trapped in its dry well.
And sadly it seems between New York, where the books are published, and Los Angeles, where the movies and television series are made, the only nationally exportable expressions of life in the Ozarks must involve methamphetamines or opiates, crime (usually murder, though now money laundering will do), and much improbable baloney. As I write there are at least three elite television series showing or filming and about to show, all crime-driven and set in the Ozarks.
Maybe this is why John Mort's new short story collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozarks Stories, from University of Notre Dame Press is beginning to mean so much to me. The thirteen stories collected here all involve common Ozarks people driven from within by desires to change, to understand, and to become whole rather than stereotypes driven from without by the happenstance of violence, drugs, and/or crime. The only story that directly involves a crime spree, the novella-length "Take the Man Out and Shoot Him," uses that aberration comically and ironically.
While reading a June Vanity Fair interview between blockbuster author Gillian Flynn and mega-famous crime novelist Megan Abbott, I was struck that neither writer ever broached setting or sense of place in the exchange. Granted female rage was the topic, and a Vanity Fair article can only go on for so long. With a firewall resistance set much too high against big hits, I had only recently learned that Flynn's New York Times bestselling novel Gone
Girl from 2012 takes place mostly north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, but five chapters are set near a lake in the Missouri Ozarks.
I rang an independent bookseller to see if I were a dullard or if Gone Girl had somehow been marketed with little to no mention of its setting. Edelweiss, the digital cataloging platform, preserves even the publishing representative's sales handles and tips to the bookseller, so the selling act can be studied in perpetuity. Neither the Crown selling copy from 2011 nor the rep's peppy notations said a word about the Ozarks, though the setting was coldly listed after a colon as "Missouri."
In subsequent online copy and in the second paragraph of the flap copy from the first edition comes the sentence: "On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary."
So, I am a bit of a dullard. Yet, I wonder if deemphasizing setting may be a key to selling fifteen million copies?
Mort won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction and is not coy but rather insistent about setting in Down Along the Piney: Ozarks Stories. Since 1996, the Sullivan Prize and Notre Dame Press have published such noteworthy and varied writers as Edward Falco, Maura Stanton, and Joan Frank. However, no other Sullivan winner bears so direct a signal in its title as Mort's Ozarks Stories. Mort sets all thirteen pieces in the Ozarks or depicts characters from the Ozarks enduring the changes of living elsewhere. The Piney is The Big Piney River which flows in southern Missouri for 110 miles until it joins the more musically named Gasconade River.
I'm a big believer in contests. Blind or double-blind contests serve to discover new voices and ensure quality writers are not lost. Also...