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Mythical Fort Wayne

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2007-12-11


You'll find Michael Martone's books in the "local authors" section in Fort Wayne bookstores, which has always felt wrong to me — he's been writing great stories for years and you'd figure his books should have graduated to the "Fiction and Literature" section by now. Of course, Martone is from Fort Wayne, and he places many of his stories in Fort Wayne and Indiana, yet I've never thought of him as a local writer. And frankly, the whole "local writers" section in bookstores has always depressed me a little; I can't help thinking that the books themselves seem to suffer an inferiority complex, cordoned off by themselves, as if they don't deserve to be on the same shelf as the Big Boys. It's as if their reason for being published had more to do with the authors being "local" than the authors being "writers," and by buying them you'd be performing some sort of benevolent civic gesture.

Double Wide, Michael Martone's recently published book of collected fiction, doesn't need any such cheerleading. It's an entertaining, odd collection of Martone's entertaining, odd stories, and it gives a full (almost comprehensive) picture of the work Martone has been publishing since 1979. Martone hasn't lived in Fort Wayne for a while, but Fort Wayne is all over Double Wide --it's the only book I know of that establishes our city as a viable literary backdrop.

It's a kick to look at Fort Wayne through the eyes of Martone's characters or, more specifically, the Fort Wayne from a few years ago, the post-war, pre-Microsoft Fort Wayne. I love how Martone takes mundane, seemingly overfamiliar city landmarks — the Old Fort, Safety Village — and fashions stories around them. The city seems exotic in many of these stories, almost bizarre, and the characters — lonely, pixilated, ruminating — speak a weird language of disconnect. It is to Martone's credit that old Fort Wayne doesn't get the nostalgia treatment in these stories; the "good old days" of industrial Fort Wayne are fully dimensional, complex in their representations, yet there is still room for affectionate, familiar portrayals, like this Christmas memory from "King of Safety":

“My father was born the day before Christmas and we always felt bad because he never seemed to get as much as the rest of us. His gifts all came at once. Christmas Eve is the one day he goes out alone. He goes to the 412 Club and Casa D'Angelo and the Hoosier Tap, where friends from work buy him drinks. One of our Christmas traditions is worrying about my father. He makes his way from one bar to the other. He never calls. It is hard to know now if it is real worry or mock worry. He always comes in around the time he was supposed to. The rest of us can eat and open presents. Every year he comes home with a new idea for a drink constructed from different food colorings and fruit. He stands over the blended, crushing ice while we tell him that this is the last year for his running around.”

This remembrance would work well no matter what city is the background for "King of Safety"— it could be St. Louis, Dayton, Louisville, whatever — but I have to admit it resonates to see the names of local bars in the context of the story.

I read Martone's first book, Alive and Dead in Indiana (mostly reprinted in Double Wide) in 1984, shortly after it was published, and I had no idea the writer was from my hometown. I got the book in hardback mainly because the cover looked great and the title was cool. (It's still an all-time, great title, by the way--think how much would have been lost if the "Alive" and "Dead" had been reversed). I was fascinated by the stories and how they were connected--Martone took famous (and infamous) people with ties to Indiana and created fictions around them. Mark Spitz, Ezra Pound, John Dillinger, and Colonel Sanders all make appearances, and it was startling to see the way Martone weaved the facts of the protagonists around his own imaginings of their time in Indiana. (And it answered a question I had long pondered--just how exactly did the old Hobby House Restaurant on Anthony Street get permission to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken?).

The killer piece in that collection is the James Dean story, "Everybody Watching and the Time Passing Like That," which still seems like a model of construction to me — the focus isn't on Dean but on his high school drama teacher, the one who gave him his first real acting lessons. The story follows her reminisces after she hears of Dean's death while judging a high school speech meet somewhere in North Central Indiana. It's a great device; Dean stays in the background throughout the story (it's the teacher's story), yet even as a secondary character he manages to lose none of his iconic stature.

I called Martone's stories odd in the first paragraph and I meant that as a compliment. All the really good writers are odd, in some sense. And really, how else can you describe the book "Michael Martone," written by Michael Martone, which consists almost entirely of elaborate "Contributor's Notes" that give alternate versions of Martone's personal history? Double Wide contains three of these notes and they're very funny, although I miss the cumulative effect of reading all forty or so back to back (it's like a literary Groundhog Day --you're never sure how the story will be advanced.) In one of the notes, the alternate version has Martone's mother dying in childbirth, which I'm sure must of gone over well in the ancestral Martone home in Fort Wayne. "Michael Martone" by Michael Martone also features a blurb on the back cover, a rave from that talented writer Michael Martone.

Double Wide contains other oddball stuff--a small excerpt from Martone's travel parody, "The Blue Guide to Indiana" is included, and it seems funnier here than in its original incarnation. For some reason I found "The Blue Guide" exhausting to read--it's funny, all right, but something about that type of humor makes a little go a long way. This excerpt, liberated from that book, looks better in relief, and underscores the reoccurring theme in much of Martone's work: the playful (almost perverse) juxtapositon of facts and anti-facts. Pensees, Martone's little book about Dan Quayle, is included as well, and it shows some of Martone's best writing. Quayle was an easy target in the early 90's, but Martone was interested in something else — his Quayle comes across almost as a tragic figure, like one of those lonely madmen in stories by Gogol and Dostoyevski. In "911" Quayle talks about destroying J. Edward Roush in his first Congressional election, and it's a bloodless, chilling account; Quayle cheerfully describes how viciousness is a quality that the populace needs from its politicians. Martone makes Quayle almost serene in his amorality here, and it's hard to remember Quayle as a bumbling fool after reading it.

But I always go back to the Fort Wayne stories in Double Wide, where names of former mini-celebrities like Wayne Rothgeb and Ann Cologne get dropped without irony:

“Bob Sievers, who had been the morning farm show host at WOWO for as long as I could remember, came on at five. I had first seen him, though I had heard him for a long time before that, when I was in high school. On television, he was selling prepaid funerals to old people. He didn't look like his voice.”

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