The Books of the States: Arkansas (6 electoral votes; Guest: Kevin Brockmeier)
When I was thinking about this project (which mainly consisted of thinking about the fun of making up quarters with all these writers' faces on them and much less of reckoning sensibly what it would actually entail to come up with a semi-legitimate list of the best books from 50 states and one district), one quarter I had penciled in early was Charles Portis for Arkansas. But the Land of Opportunity has, wisely, been left in the hands of someone who knows the state far better than I (it's one of the few states I've never even interstated through), Kevin Brockmeier, and he gave explicit instructions otherwise (see below), with which I am more than happy to comply. Close readers will also note below that Kevin has shoehorned into his six John Williams's Stoner, which I just put on the Missouri list yesterday. I'm glad to see another Stoner fan, but if we end up placing it in Missouri (where it is set, after all), that will open up another slot for Arkansas. Any suggestions? I'd favor Frank Stanford's cult-favorite long poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, or one of my all-time favorite titles, Jack Butler's Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, or--talk about apples and oranges--perhaps The Wal-Mart Effect (or one of Brockmeier's own books), but I'd love to hear more ideas.
Kevin Brockmeier was raised in Little Rock and, after detours to the Iowa Writers Workshop and other places, he has returned there to live and write. To this date he's written exactly as many books as Arkansas has electoral votes, including two story collections, Things That Fall from the Sky and this year's The View from the Seventh Layer, two for younger readers, City of Names and Grooves, and two novels, The Truth About Celia and The Brief History of the Dead (a big favorite around our offices). His piece on Arkansas for State by State is a tale of two bumper stickers, "Sticking Up for Decency" and "Sticking Up for Liberty," that suddenly appeared all over the state in the early '90s, which leads him to sum up his state like so:
It appeared--though who had noticed it before?--that they were engaged in a kind of combat, Liberty and Decency, or at least that they were preparing for engagement, like two duelists marking out their paces. In Arkansas, it seemed that this was simply the way of things: We were always preparing for engagement, without ever quite entering the fray. We were a conservative state with a predominantly Democratic legislature. We were home to both Tony Alamo of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and St. Janor Hypercleats of the Church of the Subgenius. Throughout the eighties, we had voted in large numbers for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, yet we were readying the stage to send our young liberal governor to the White House. As a people, we were not so much divided as we were emphatically self-abnegating.
Here is his superbly annotated six-book library for Arkansas (listed in alphabetical order):
- The Cockroaches of Stay More by Donald Harington: Harington is the most prolific of the state's novelists, the most beloved, and the one whose works have brought the most dedication to constructing a mythology of Arkansas. I could easily fill this list with his books alone, so robust and joyful and sensitive to the constitution of human souls are they. Over the course of his thirteen novels and one perhaps-novel (Let Us Build Us a City, which Harington himself considers a novel, though his publishers have deemed it a travelogue/local history chronicle), he has devoted himself to revealing the lives of the inhabitants of the fictional Ozark hamlet of Stay More, his own Yoknapatawpha County. The consensus masterpiece of the series is The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, but my favorite is The Cockroaches of Stay More, an immensely strange and surpassingly touching story of love and disillusionment in the insect kingdom. Harington is warmly regarded and occasionally fetishized by the state's readers, as this cartoon from a recent issue of the Arkansas Times testifies. If ever there was an Arkansas writer whose visage deserved to be stamped on a coin, he is it.
- The Dixie Association by Donald Hays: Arkansas is home to a large population of sports enthusiasts but no professional football or basketball franchises, so a lot of fervor is spent on the University's various Razorback teams and on our one Double-A baseball team, the Travelers. The Dixie Association offers up another such team, the Arkansas Reds, a minor league ball club with a Socialist manager and a motley roster of eccentrics, lechers, and criminals. The novel was recommended to me by a local bookseller who called it the best baseball novel he had ever read. It has the virtues of irreverence, high-spiritedness, and a sort of crabby decency that never seems arrogant or overbearing. It also happens to be the best baseball novel I have ever read.
- True Grit by Charles Portis: An El Dorado native and 45-year resident of Little Rock, Portis is considered by many to be America's finest living comic novelist. All five of his novels have their champions (among whom have been Roy Blount, Jr., Roald Dahl, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, and Larry McMurtry), but to my mind his most popular, True Grit, is also his best. Set in and around Fort Smith and venturing into the Indian Territories of Oklahoma, the book is narrated by Mattie Ross, who begins her story, "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day," and ends it, "Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross's blood over in the Choctaw nation when snow was on the ground." The novel is best remembered today for introducing the character of Marshal Rooster Cogburn, played on film by John Wayne, but I would argue that it is the simple, unseasoned, flawlessly inflected poetry of Mattie's voice that is its greatest achievement.
- Flood Summer by Trenton Lee Stewart: The first three novels I've listed here are the sort of superb comic creations in which Arkansas seems to specialize, but this little-known recent novel by the author of The Mysterious Benedict Society series of children's books has a consistent air of tragedy about it. Set in and around Hot Springs, it tells the story of two survivors--of a flood and of the sorrows of their own pasts--who cling to each other from within the wreckage of their lives. Flood Summer is a work of great artistry and tenderness, in which every sentence is carefully wrought and every character, no matter his flaws, is cradled by the author's loving attention. It is always a surprise to discover that art is being produced right down the street from you, and that was the sensation I had reading this book.
- Stoner by John Williams: Williams wrote all of his novels while teaching at the University of Denver, and he was not an Arkansas native, but he did spend the last decade of his life in Fayetteville, which is the excuse I'm using to shoehorn him onto this list. While the book's title promises a sort of drifting, pot-addled lark a la Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke, Stoner is in fact a richly observed, deeply felt, and unsparingly honest portrait of a Midwestern English professor who reads, teaches, marries poorly, experiences a few moments of relative happiness and clarity, then dies and is promptly forgotten. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful, modest, and heartbreaking books I know. I would call it one of modern American literature's secret masterpieces, yet another novel that has been inexplicably ignored while lesser books continue to be celebrated, were it not for the fact that I keep meeting other writers (Steve Almond, Lauren Groff) who share in the secret.
- Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems by Miller Williams: If Donald Harington is the novelist most identified with Arkansas from within the state's borders, Miller Williams is the poet who bears that same distinction. His dozen collections have shown him to be a writer as likely to compose in unstructured verse, or at least in verse whose structure is self-generated, as he is to adopt traditional forms or to innovate within those forms, as he does in his mournful yet comic high-wire creation "The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina," one of my favorites of his poems. I have what I tend to think of as a fiction writer's taste in poetry; I'm drawn to poems with strong elements of monologue or narrative, presented in a voice that is deft and nuanced but not forbiddingly abstruse, and Williams's work is written in exactly the right register for readers of my taste. (He also happens to be the father of one of America's finest songwriters, Lucinda Williams.)
Finally, for those of you who, like me, believe that the electoral college system should be abolished and our President determined by the nation's actual tally of popular votes--down with the framers of the Constitution!--let me also recommend Arkansas, Arkansas: Writers and Writings from the Delta to the Ozarks, both the first volume, 1541-1969, and the second, The Contemporary Scene, 1970-Present, edited by John Caldwell Guilds. These books offer a generous overview of the state's literature through the end of the twentieth century, including most of the writers I've named above, along with many others I am precluded from discussing further here because of Arkansas's paltry six electors, writers such as Maya Angelou, John Gould Fletcher, Vance Randolph, Jack Butler, Ellen Gilchrist, Frank Stanford, and Dee Brown.