The Newsletter of
Down State Story magazine immediately intrigued me because it is a product of Peoria, Illinois. Ever since a recent trip through the Midwest--past a chain reaction of cornfields interrupted by pristine Dairy Queens--I've been somewhat curious about the inhabitants of this symmetrical and wholesome place. Does any chaos lurk beneath the surface? In addition, Peoria has become synonymous with the middle class--known for detergent testimonials.
Down State Story, edited by Elaine Hopkins and Janeen Crowley, provides insight into the middle class as well as middle America, mixing surreal with real elements as you enter into the homegrown imaginations of its writers and artists.
Many stories in Down State explore extraordinary and weird events in mundane, recognizable middle class settings; the checkout lane, the Holiday Inn lobby, and the video store become sites of fresh and non-traditional plots. In this edition (Volume III) a customer who pockets a video is pursued by the nightmarish store manager in an electric wheelchair, a woman falls for her obscene phone caller, and a man attending his high-school reunion is transported back to his teenage years via a special camera. Frequently enough, this mixture of fantastic and prosaic details creates a humorous effect. In the "Electric Chair," for example, the video store has
"ten television sets hung suspended from the ceiling like compound, electric fly eyes....Darlene started a new video--GROUNDHOG DAY. Ten Bill Murrays committed suicide in ten different ways--jumping off buildings, stepping in front of trucks, dropping toasters in tubs" (18).
Although the content is avant-garde, stylistically, the stories are more in line with mainstream prescriptions, focusing on a pivotal narrative moment, adhering to a lean Carver-esque simplicity, using a linear or a flashback approach to time.
"Girl from Pandora, Iowa," by Don Axt, uses flashback to deal with the issue of the interracial relationship and the prejudice surrounding it. Larry DeWild (who is anything but wild) is an upwardly mobile executive whose love child from a college affair with a black woman shows up in the lobby of his sales office. This white man goes through a life review of this tryst as he descends by the stairway--the action underscoring his descent from his "on-top-of-it" (49) position--to face his past and his racism. The story portrays, with honesty, a protaganist who cannot disrupt the status quo and who becomes oppressed himself by the rigid rules and expectations imposed by the college fraternity which is a mere precursor to his corporate life. DeWild is the quintessential salesman who must "spruce up a bit...buy a new necktie, a bright one with flower like those worn by the company management trainees and advertising salesmen" (49). Paradoxically, the salesman is commodified--a product that must continually face society's inspection. The conclusion is a perfect statement about the clash of cultures, the high price of conformity, and selling out.
"Deus Ex Machina," by Burt Rabbe, is another Down State standout. This piece focuses on the exploitation of minority factory workers as the ghost of a man killed in an industrial accident comes back to see that his wife sues the plant owners. This ghost story includes realistic appraisals of factory life juxtaposed with speculative assessments of the afterlife. About factory life, the narrator states, "Al turned and strode away. He was not an evil man. He and Pancho were really very much alike, cogs in a vast machine, whose lives were important depending on how good a cog they could be" (57). The narrator also presents his theories about the afterlife: "When a person dies, the soul splits into three parts. One part, which is all self-concern and vanity, goes to hell, which is all self-concern and vanity. One part, which is a piece of the awareness of the universe, goes to heaven, which is awareness of the universe. One part, which is concern for this day-to-day existence, stays here as a ghost. Most of a person will go where he is most caught up with" (58). This motif of layering and classism (even in the afterlife) reflects the idea of the caste system in the plant among Anglos, Mexicans, and bureaucrats.
Down State Story provides readers with a ballot to vote for their favorite story. I cast mine for "The Love Seat," by Steve Meiss. This absurd tale tells of Jim Botto's life when his mother-in-law comes to convalesce in his home after a hospital stay. The story captures the sense of disorientation experienced by many middle-class families trying to do everything and take care of everybody. At the Botto home, a clear sense of time and place does not exist. Jim returns home from his news job when his kids go off to school. The mother-in-law must sleep on an uncomfortable love-seat in the living room while his colleagues visit. Jim is forever analyzing world news but cannot keep up with the news of his personal life. He barely knows what his wife looks like as she goes about in an unlaundered bathrobe and messy hair. The family lives in a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, a fog, but in the end, his wife Patsy opens the window and lets the clean air in (although this may be because there's a corpse). The details are familiar--from the brown plastic coffee cup to the kids lying down and eating in front of the television. The attitude ia typically bourgeois in that Patsy is more concerned about the appearance of the love-seat than its practicality. "Patsy said she was pleased with the love seat, which looked OK except for a spot in one corner" (34). This wacky story shows us how the really important issues may become subordinated in the hectic and unexamined lives of modern families.
Some of the stories were based on an unusual concept but could have used more development. At times, I wanted to see more space devoted to writing and less to art and photography. The photographs of the writers appearing at the end of the stories interfered with my appreciation of these stories as fiction. Sometimes I began to identify the narrator with the author. Perhaps such photographs could be placed at the end of the magazine, along with bios. The art and photography was generally not complex and offbeat enough to support some of the stories. The realism of the graphics, for me, conflicted with the more fantastic vision inspired by the words. The cover design, while it is well done and attractive, is too romantic and does not quite support the content.
All in all, Down State Story gave me a glimpse into the Midwest--the humor, creativity, and concerns--that I never saw on my road trip. This literary, eight-dollar trip was a smooth highway--no radar traps of ambiguous plots or construction sites of overly complicated sentences, but some odd and satisfying scenery along the way.
Perhaps everything old is new again. I second Kathy Moffitt's praise of Down State Story, as well as her ideas for further improvement. Having examined the first two issues (Volumes 1 and 2, from 1992 and 1993), I am amazed at the refreshing (and sometimes jolting) mixture of fictional registers in this little-known little magazine.
From its inception, Down State Story has broken current taboos. Not only do they mix New Yorker or Esquire style fiction with literature of the fantastic, but they really seem to care about what used to be called story values. They focus on the tale, rather than on any particular ideology. Why, they seemingly ignore literary fashions altogether. While some of the pieces published here are journeyman work or sketchy vignettes, many of the stories have (imagine!) beginnings, middles, and ends. By running photos and detailed biographies, the editors make it impossible to contemplate "the death of the author." They unabashedly solicit reader response, awarding cash prizes to the most popular writers, in the manner of the old Astounding.
The stories in these two volumes range in style and theme from Carver country to the grotesque New American Gothic practiced by Flannery O'Connor. Don Axt' s "Maxwell Forrest and the Wanna Bee" exemplifies the latter: the "Wanna Bee" lady of the title dreams of becoming an amputee, "to have a leg off." In Volume 2 are stories that could have been written in the late 1950s by Ray Bradbury or seen on the original Twilight Zone, mingling the cozily domestic with the strange and unexplained. Don Axt's "One Quality Hour" is a ghost story with real pathos, while W.G. Bliss's "The Bad Antique Dealer" presents an interesting time-travel paradox, though this one could use more development. Both of these authors are retired and in their sixties--let's hope they reach a wider audience.
Professional work like Axt's and Steve Meiss's "Frog" (Vol. 1), winner of the reader's award, co-exist (if a bit uneasily) with sentimental vignettes and some rather primitive artwork. Even so, if one story or illustration is not to your taste, move on to the next--it will be different! With such a variety of styles and concerns, this may truly be the little magazine with something for EveryReader. One of their sponsors, the Puffin Foundation, claims to engage "the dialogue between art and the lives of ordinary people." Down State Story deserves their funding, now and in the future.
|The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.|
This page was last updated on Sat Jul 17 02:25:43 1999.
Site Version: 3.01 (September 1999).
Click HERE for information on how to cite this page.
Copyright 1995 Kathleen Moffitt
Contact and Contribution Information