The Closing Window

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit
By Michael Zadoorian
Wayne State University Press, 2009

American Salvage
By Bonnie Jo Campbell
Wayne State University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Christopher Barzak

Fiction that examines the lives of ordinary working people was particularly fruitful in the 1980s and 1990s, when writers of short stories—such as Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Toni Cade Bambara—were published alongside novelists—such as Russell Banks, Carolyn Chute, and Richard Russo—who wrote about working-class settings, characters, and problems. In the first ten years of the twenty-first century, though, it seems that fewer and fewer writers (or perhaps publishers) are exploring working-class people and issues in fiction. Occasionally, a novelist will appear on the scene with a naturalistic view of working-class life, as Philipp Meyer recently did with his debut novel, American Rust. But fiction that gazes intently upon the lower and working classes has had a difficult time surfacing in the new century.

In an essay called “Never Give an Inch,” published in the Fall 2010 issue of the literary journal Tin House, Gerald Howard states that this infrequency of attention in fiction may have something to do with the social class of those who generally work in publishing houses:

As relatively modest as their salaries may be, people in publishing are still by birth and education and cultural assumptions members of the emerging American overclass, self-replicating and increasingly isolated from the conditions of American life outside the big cities and campus enclaves . . . All of which means that voices from and on behalf of the working class have that much harder a time getting read, understood, and published.

Absent some unforeseen cultural shift, these voices are likely to remain unfashionable. Other factors may contribute to Howard’s analysis, but the claim that working-class fiction is unfashionable or misunderstood by editorial gatekeepers may apply primarily to large, corporate publishing houses, because working-class fiction is alive and well at small presses and university presses. Even more interesting is that short story collections outnumber working class-oriented novels from such publishers. Maybe that reflects Raymond Carver’s explanation of the short story form: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” For a writer whose life may require a job (or several jobs) beyond writing in order to live—the sort of writer who may be more likely to write about working-class issues—the short story can be especially attractive. Small, yet allowing a writer to focus with precision on characters whose lives are also circumscribed by work (or the lack thereof in some cases), the length of the short story allows working writers the benefit of accomplishment within the limitations of their freedom of time. Two writers who have recently turned to this form are Michael Zadoorian and Bonnie Jo Campbell.

In his 2009 collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, Zadoorian delivers a showcase of characters that ranges from a woman who puts animals to sleep at a pound—slowly accreting an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness in her daily tasks—to a young man who “had left his wife back in Detroit and had heard that she was looking for him. Not to kill him, or even to hurt him, though sometimes he told people that because it sounded a lot more interesting” (p. 18). He befriends a woman who suffers from dyskinesia and has used her loss of muscle control as a way to create rather than suffer, flinging paint on a canvas, Jackson Pollock-style. She calls her paintings “meaningless” but later tells him: “You’ve got to use it . . . Otherwise it’s just wasted energy, nothing.” The advice seems especially appropriate for a young man who couldn’t understand how to be married and hold a steady job.

This line of dialogue might sum up the theme of Zadoorian’s fondly assembled cast of Detroiters, who live in particular sections of the city. Zadoorian has parceled out their stories into a West Side, East Side, and Downtown structure, giving the book a feeling of being a small world contained unto itself, mapped, known. An impulse to name sometimes comes when a place begins to erode, and Zadoorian has done well to begin naming the places and people of the city of Detroit as it faces an extreme period of decline. His characters reflect the human response to losing a native place. Some are obsessed with the past as embodied in their parents’ old furniture and antiques from their childhoods in the 1960s, like the narrator of “The World of Things.”

But this isn’t just a story about personal memory. As Zadoorian explains, “Of course, the American dream changed in Detroit after the 1967 riots. Lots of those good white middle-class folks headed north of 8 Mile Road afterward and just kept on going into the suburbs and beyond” (p. 46). He continues, putting his family’s experiences into the broader landscape of Detroit: “But not my mother, who continued to live in that good middleclass neighborhood even after it became a neighborhood of crack houses—main streets lined with the faded exoskeletons of burned-out mom-and-pop stores and boarded-up car dealerships with weeds growing between the concrete slabs where bright Chryslers once stood” (p. 48). In this discussion of the white flight from Detroit after the riots, place functions so tenderly as a background to, or an origin of, the narrator’s compulsion to preserve the remnants of a world that has since deteriorated after the white middle class fled. This kind of sociological landscaping shapes Zadoorian’s descriptions of the environment his characters inhabit in ways that chart degradation rather than progress (a sometimes unexamined fictional belief that things move forward instead of regressing). These details are familiar to those who inhabit such settings, of course, and who are not represented in fiction as often as they once were. But in any guise these characters are the working class, the workless, and the poor, trying to hold onto some semblance of a world.

Like Michael Zadoorian, Bonnie Jo Campbell is mapping her own native land in her 2009 collection, American Salvage, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Instead of the urban decay of Detroit, though, Campbell describes the more rural socioeconomic landscape of Southwestern Michigan and reports on the lives of the people who continue to live there. Left behind by industries that have abandoned the region, the characters who populate Campbell’s stories work part time as school custodians, live in salvage yards among rotting sheds and piles of scrap metal, stow away in cabins owned by more well-to-do folks from the city, become addicted to meth, try to keep their marriages together despite the crushing stress of poverty, and usually fail. They hunt, fix their own cars, fight with one another, try to keep their children from having sex at too young an age, join militias, fear the imminent collapse of the world economy (rightly, since they have witnessed their own local world’s economy collapse just as easily, and within the span of only a couple of decades), and try to salvage what they can of the American Dream, the myth that keeps them going while simultaneously eluding them. These are embattled and embittered people living in post-industrial rural America.

Campbell’s perspective is less nostalgic than Zadoorian’s. Her characters are less hopeful, rougher around the edges. They drink alot of beer while sitting on the tailgates of their trucks, and they worry about credit card bills. An older salvage yard man tells a younger one, “When I was a boy, this was a going concern. Mid-American Company, wasn’t it?” and speculates as to why the old woman whose family owned the company continues to allow it to exist, rusting away as a salvage yard. The storytelling process reveals that, even if Campbell’s perspective is less nostalgic than Zadoorian’s, her characters aren’t immune to that feeling: “He said the old lady worked in her grandpa’s company as a girl, fell in love with some job superintendent who was killed in an accident. Hammermill used to claim the woman came to visit him sometimes. Visit him, if you know what I mean” (pp. 24-25).

In “The Inventor,” a hunter accidentally hits a thirteen-year-old girl as she steps out in front of his vehicle. The story hinges both upon a description of the girl’s desire to not die young like one of her uncles, whose memory haunts her family, and even more strongly upon the hunter’s past as a foundry worker. He was badly burned while working long ago, leaving his face scarred in a way that frightens people. He is thirty-five, but his inner life feels much older, and he is without the sort of hope the girl carries. He is turned away by a passing car when its driver sees his scars, and again at the door of a nearby house as he attempts to find a phone in order to call an ambulance to come to the girl’s aid.

Eventually he’s permitted to use the phone at an elderly woman’s house, but not without her training her shotgun on him the entire time. After placing his phone call to 911, he returns to the girl’s side, where it seems the ambulance will never arrive, and ponders his suffering at the hands of both industry and post-industry, as well as the suffering of the girl he has hit:

If the foundry, where he worked above vats of molten steel for sixteen years, has become obsolete, then shouldn’t the world outside the foundry be noticeably more advanced? He had intended to work at the foundry forever (his burns were a pact the foundry made with him), but they disassembled and dissected the equipment with torches and sold it as scrap iron in a world unprepared to reshape those materials into advanced medical machinery . . . What point is there in a world like this one, he wonders, where working machinery must be melted down, where the cleverest scientists drown, where he and this girl must wait in the dirty slush alongside the road and stare into the face of pain? (p. 47)

Heady stuff for a displaced steel worker, but Campbell places this scene against the subtle back story of the hunter’s former desire and success as a high school student who had wanted to be an inventor. Having gone to work in the foundry right out of high school in order to make money for college, and then being burned badly at the foundry, thus cutting him off from the social world that flinches at the sight of him, his life has been committed to work that, sixteen years later, abandons him. Campbell’s an expert at writing about a working class that is without work, providing a reader with the small window of a short story that looks out on a much larger world that is eroding.

It seems natural that Wayne State University Press published both collections under its “Made in Michigan” series. In a socalled global world, the faded and raggededged local worlds that exist within the dominant culture of middle- to upper-class life are often lost. The publication regularity of working-class novels and collections released in the 1980s and 1990s has begun to narrow, almost as the world of the working-class transforms into a landscape of people without any work at all. The publication of naturalistic novels or novels of social realism by large corporate publishers has slowed to a trickle as the world’s economy slows, and readers tend to flinch at fiction that forces us to look at the victims of shifting political and economic tides in the global world. The novel looms large in New York publishing, where the belief that short story collections cannot make money prevails. In an oddly synchronic manner, as the short story begins to fade from the view of wide audiences, it seems to have not abandoned the lives of the working class and those who live in postindustrial landscapes. Perhaps the closing window that working-class people face in these hard times calls out to be written about in this particular form now, in the circumscribed window of the short story.