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Fort Wayne native BJ Hollars’ first collection of fiction offers a new spin on the traditional Midwest coming-of-age story
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When he was a senior in high school, BJ Hollars entered an essay contest in which he had to discuss why he thought someone was a “great American.” For his subject, Hollars chose his favorite author, Ray Bradbury. Reading Dandelion Wine in seventh grade was a “eureka” moment for Hollars, launching an enthusiasm and passion not only for Bradbury’s work but for writing and literature in general, and the essay was Hollars’ way of paying tribute to an artist he admired so much.
But a funny thing happened — not only did Hollars’ essay win the contest, the organizers sent the piece to Bradbury. And then one day, Hollars’ mother came to the bookstore where BJ worked bearing an envelope with Ray Bradbury’s return address on it. Inside the envelope was a letter thanking Hollars for the essay and inviting him to call sometime.
So, Hollars gave Bradbury a call. In a piece published just days after Bradbury’s death in 2012, Hollars wrote: “I can’t recall exactly what we talked about… What I do remember was implying to him that I would soon be ‘in the area,’ and how much I’d appreciate the chance to shake his hand.”
Bradbury responded: “Well, come on over then!”
Several months later, in December of 2002, Hollars — still a high school student at Canterbury — took a flight from Fort Wayne to California, and wound up spending a morning chatting to his literary hero. The two kept in contact over the next 10 years, with Hollars visiting the author at least one more time. “I still have a voice message on my phone from him,” says Hollars.
A quote from Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree” supplies the epigraph to Sightings, Hollars first collection of short fiction, and the coming-of-age stories inside owe a little something to Bradbury, too. “At the core of a lot of these stories, you have these characters thrust into these bizarre, out-of-the-ordinary experiences, but I always want the characters to be grounded in their emotions,” says Hollars, now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. “That’s something I think Ray Bradbury did a lot of. His characters could be on Mars, but at their core, they were just Midwesterners.”
Mars isn’t a setting in Sightings — it’s actually Fort Wayne that serves as the backdrop for several tales — but the stories often capture the moment when a previously familiar, safe world transforms into an unsettling extraterrestrial landscape.
In “Indian Village,” a group of middle-school buddies find their summertime idyll disrupted by a new family in the neighborhood, a family that seems to resist all friendly overtures by the narrator and his friends.
“Westward Expansion,” one of the book’s longer stories, reads like a goofy take on The Mosquito Coast, where a father’s obsession with the westward expansion of the American pioneers culminates in a weekend gathering of re-enactors.
Some of the stories use more absurdist elements. In the title story, a high school basketball team recruits a real sasquatch to help lead them to a string of victories. An injury scuttles their hopes for a championship season, but it’s the unspoken codes of the prom that prove the most difficult challenge. The narrator of “Sightings” regards sasquatch as not all that different than anyone else on his team or his high school; he just happens to be incredibly tall and incredibly hairy, and he slinks off to his home in the woods at the end of the school day, after practice.
But Hollars finds a poignancy even with an absurd premise like “Sightings.” Sasquatch serves as a metaphor for the strangeness and awkwardness of adolesence on the cusp of the next stage of life. It’s no surprise that the narrator, looking back on his high school basketball career as sasquatch’s team mate, finds his younger self identifying with a grunting half-human trying to negotiate the “civilized” world, and ultimately not sure he wants to be a part of it.
The 10 stories in Sightings are all spins on classic “coming-of-age” tales, and Hollars admits to a fascination with the genre. In 2009 he edited an anthology of coming-of-age stories entitled You Must Be This Tall to Ride. “A lot of the stories in Sightings probably began from watching one too many episodes of The Wonder Years,” he laughs. “ I always liked the ‘coming-of-age’ story, but it gets short-shrift. It always becomes Dawson’s Creek. I wanted to tackle the literary coming-of-age story where it wasn’t just the conventional tropes of the genre.”
Indeed, in every story Hollars finds a way to undercut the sentimentality that seems to be a staple of many coming of age stories, whether it’s by incorporating surreal elements in “Sightings” and “The Clowns,” or using an unreliable narrator to tell the story.
The story that perhaps comes closest to being conventional is “Indian Village,” set in 1975 in (you guessed it) Fort Wayne’s Indian Village neighborhood. 1975 was before Hollars’ time, and he didn’t live in Indian Village either, but… “I always wanted to live in Indian Village,” he says. “I spent time at the Pocohontas Pool, and I used to drive through Indian Village and think ‘how could a neighborhood be so awesome?’”
“But I wanted that story to have a kind of sepia-toned feel to it,” he continues. “To me, there’s something perpetually 1975 about the area, a ‘riding your bike with baseball cards in the spokes’ feel, and setting the story (in 1975) gave me that.”
But while there is a lot of humor in many of the stories in Sightings, a few take on a darker tone. The narrators in “Schooners” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships” have voices that are unsettling. In the former, a boy with a form of autism struggles to react to the disappearance of one of his neighbors. “His voice fascinates me,” Hollars says of the narrator. “I wanted an unreliable narrator who is caught up in his own head, but his fascination is disconcerting and a little strange.”
And in “Loose Lips…”, a middle school boy strikes up a friendship with a new boy at school who has just come from Alaska. There’s nothing really sinister about the narrator, but Hollars captures a slightly aggressive immaturity that’s humorous and off-putting at the same time. Hollars explains: “It’s meant to be comical, but… he’s a young kid who doesn’t quite understand how to reciprocate friendship, and his friend is growing up a little faster than he is.”
A couple stories — the aforementioned “Schooners” and “Missing Mary,” the final story in the book — deal with the disappearance of young people. “Missing Mary” is told in the second person, and has a devastating ending: “Years later, as Mary’s sister sits silently in chemistry class, science will give her an answer: My sister has simply turned soluble. A moment there and then gone.”
Hollars says he isn’t sure why he wanted to end on such a sharp note. “Maybe the reason it took a darker turn is because it emulates the growing-up experience, where the fantastical and the storytelling suddenly turns ‘real’,” he says. “Suddenly there are real complications and life doesn’t have answers. So I think maybe I shed the childhood skin as the book goes on, and by the end, you’re left with the real world hardships.”
Hollars has a couple non-fiction books to his credit — Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence
and the Last Lynching in America was published in 2011, and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa was published this year. The 10 stories in Sightings first appeared in different literary magazines and journals over the last several years, but Hollars says many of them had quite a long journey before finding a home in print. “Fiction has always been my first love. It was always fiction first for me. But it takes so long for me to inhabit the bodies and voices of these fictional characters. With non-fiction, you learn the facts and present the facts in an interesting way. With fiction, you have to get out your Ouija board and try to embody the souls of these people, and that takes a little more time.”
As we said, several of the stories are set in Fort Wayne, though Hollars concedes that it’s an idealized version of the city he carries around with him. “It’s funny — I go back now, I’ll go to, for example, the Three Rivers Festival or something, and think ‘This is not at all how I remember’,” he says. “But I listen to Tin Caps games on the radio; I have a green Fort Wayne street sign in my office. I love the place for what it was for me at that point in my life. But that’s what the stories in Sightings are all about, a time we can’t get back to, a brief detour back into that world.”
Hollars reads from Sightings at the Aboite Branch of the library — 5630 Coventry Lane — at 1:00p.m. on Saturday, April 27.
Sightings is published by Indiana University Press and is available now. Copies will be available for purchase at the reading.